Despite its alternative title (Montparnasse 19), Les Amants de Montparnasse (1958) actually charts the last years of Modigliani’s life (from late 1916 to 1920), and includes many salient “facts” of that life, including the artist’s dependence on the endlessly patient Théo Van Gogh figure Leopold “Zboro” Zborowski (Gérard Séty); the relationships with his most important muses Beatrice Hastings (Lilli Palmer), an English aristocrat and poet, and Jeanne Hébuterne (Anouk Aimée), a quiet, seemingly passive bourgeois and art student; his drug addiction and alcoholism; the fiasco of the only solo exhibition in his lifetime, where a nude displayed in the window of the Galerie Berthe Weill falls foul of the police, and negligible sales are made (1); and Modigliani’s agonising death from tuberculosis.
Nevertheless, the film opens with the caveat: “The authors of this film, while inspired by actual events, do not claim to have made a historical film” (2). Certainly, Les Amants de Montparnasse is a very peculiar biopic, one in which the main character is shown to have little control over his own actions, never mind the wider events that define them. Most surviving photographs of Modigliani, essentially an invalid from early childhood, display the burly, cocky, defiant Italian macho of legend, staring directly into camera, cigarette in hand, arrogating attention and respect. Gérard Philipe’s performance on the other hand takes its cue from Modigliani’s only self-portrait, which features in the “montage” of masterpieces Morel (Lino Ventura) riffles through in the film’s last sequence. Painted in the last months of his life, Modigliani depicts himself as a vulnerable figure, perched on a rickety chair; his eyes at once closed, entranced and already dead; his cheeks sunken, his drawn face seeming to topple from a dying body mummified in scarf and corduroy jacket (Philipe himself would die before the film’s release).
Les Amants de Montparnasse begins with the first of a series of humiliations and scenarios of emasculation – a worker in a café rejects Modigliani’s portrait sketch; at the film’s climax, a febrile Modigliani will haunt the same cafés, again failing to sell his work. His first painting doesn’t appear until over an hour into the film (withheld like the monster in a horror film), part of his doomed exhibition. His first lover taunts his inability to produce decent work when sober, and is intent on keeping him as her gigolo; unknown to him, it is his second who makes money from art by painting the postcards that enable them to subsist. He tries, like a knight-errant, to rescue the imprisoned Jeanne and fails lamentably. Far from being a heroic artist figure, progressing to his Destiny, this Modigliani staggers through the film in a trance or in a state of collapse, his identity fractured by mirrors and windows. He is ultimately consumed by Morel, whose supposed profession as art dealer is unconvincing, but whose function as an allegorical figure – Death? Posterity? – is in keeping with the film’s fundamentally anti-historical, anti-realistic method.
Les Amants de Montparnasse is not really a biopic at all, more of a fantasy, a hallucination, a nightmare. The film frequently invokes the language of fairy tales and horror films, from Jeanne as the innocent princess locked in a tower by her wicked father, through the vampiric hold Beatrice has on Modigliani, to the climactic sequences where the artist leaves the socio-economic “reality” of early 20th century France to tramp an Expressionistic, phantasmagoric, fog-choked Paris street to his death. Though set in the era of Cubism, Futurism and Dadaism, and despite the appearance of a (parked) motorcar and a (genteel) jazz band, there is a curious temporal dislocation in Les Amants de Montparnasse. This Paris feels less like the hub of speedy modernity than the poisoned Impressionist idyll of Becker’s best-loved film, Casque d’Or (1952), set at the turn of the century (3). Much of the film, such as the life drawing sequence where Modigliani finally meets Jeanne – a scene, we find out later, that is the culmination of the apparently meek Jeanne’s determined stalking of the infamous artist – could in terms of the clothes, faces and attitudes of the students, be set at the time of the film’s making (musical lovers may be reminded of Stanley Donen’s then recent lampoon of Bohemian Paris, Funny Face ).
The “facts” outlined above obscure Les Amants de Montparnasse’s elision of realities that other films would have capitalised on, such as the suicide of Jeanne the day after Modigliani’s death (from the family flat in which her parents had imprisoned her). Most of the film takes place during World War I, which is not even mentioned – Modigliani’s move South is as much to avoid a German invasion as for his health – but which is one explanation for the stark, depopulated mise en scène. The fact that most men his age (including many artists) were off being slaughtered at the Front may be one root of Modigliani’s mental anguish, or it could be his Jewishness in an anti-Semitic France still reeling from the Dreyfus Affair. Modigliani’s narrative is signalled by Christian imagery of questionable taste, but his outsider status is displaced onto his friends and dealers Zboro and Berthe Weill (Marianne Oswald), who are harassed by racist police.
The pall of death hanging over Les Amants de Montparnasse begins with the film’s dedication to Max Ophuls, who died before he could start working on it. Like Modigliani, Ophuls was a Jew who spent most of his adult life in exile. Auteurists will no doubt enjoy separating the “visions” of Ophuls and Becker from the finished film; Les Amants de Montparnasse clearly follows on from the commercially disastrous Lola Montès (1955) by using a notorious historical individual as the pivot for a stylised fantasia on the nature of history, biography, performance, spectacle, creativity, the commercialisation of art, and the gap between private and public selves. Modigliani and the other characters are very self-conscious about the legend that is being played out: “Go play your Modigliani elsewhere”.
Though friends, Ophuls and Becker could hardly be more different in style and ambition. Where Ophuls’ elaborate sets were praised or condemned as “baroque” or “a kind of stylistic decadence”, and his intricate camerawork defied physics by “pass[ing] through walls” (5), Becker was celebrated for his small-scale, “humanist” accounts of (usually male) friendship in recognisable Parisian locales, where craft – whether that of carpenters and printers or gangsters and escaping prisoners – is prized. This “branding” of Becker led many of his admirers to reject the big-budget spectacles he produced from the mid-1950s as unsuited to his talent (6).In Les Amants de Montparnasse, even the odd, spectacular shot of sunlit, Provençal rooftops (reminiscent of Marcel Pagnol comedies) is tied to Modigliani’s point-of-view. But this apparent fidelity to human scale allows Becker to pull off a visual and emotional coup so audacious not even Ophuls, Becker’s mentor Renoir or Modigliani’s acquaintance and one-time subject Cocteau quite managed. As his anti-hero lies feverish in a Paris hospital, Becker films the moment of Modigliani’s death from his point-of-view, the camera’s intense gaze blurring into unconsciousness. The effect is shocking, and unprecedented in the cinema. It produces an effect so solemn yet galvanising that it makes the film’s coda at once bitterly cynical and the transcendent flash of the drowning man whose life as it was lived was a dismal failure, but is redeemed by the fruits of that life, even if this redemption is of little use to him or those who loved him.
1. In fact, the exhibition was closed in toto; in the film, the offending nude is merely removed from the window. Alan G. Wilkinson, “Modigliani, Amedeo”, The Dictionary of Art. Vol. 21: Medallion to Montalbani, ed. Jane Turner, Grove, New York, 1996.
2. “Les auteurs de ce film romancé, s’ils se sont inspirés de certains épisodes authentiques, n’ont pas prétendu faire oeuvre historique.”
3. Becker described its mood as “Something between the painter Renoir, and Eugène Sue”. See “Casque d’Or”, Sight and Sound vol. 22, no. 1, July-September 1952, p. 9.
4. Penelope Houston, “Lola Montès”, Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 25, no. 288, January 1958, p. 3.
5. Stanley Kubrick quoted in Kenneth Turan, “Homage to a Master of Technique”, Los Angeles Times 3 October 1999: http://articles.latimes.com/1999/oct/03/entertainment/ca-17995.
6. In an obituary written for Sight and Sound, Peter John Dyer claimed “[w]ith his more recent pictures he had not on the whole been lucky”. See Dyer, “Becker”, Sight and Sound vol. 29, no. 2, Spring 1960, p. 96.
Les Amants de Montparnasse/Montparnasse 19(1958 France/Italy 108 mins)
Prod Co: Franco London Films/Astra Cinematografica/Sandro Pallavinci I.N.C. Prod: Sandro Pallavinci Dir: Jacques Becker Scr: Michel-Georges Michel Phot: Christian Matras Ed: Marguerite Renoir Prod Des: Jean d’Eaubonne Mus: Paul Misraki
Cast: Gérard Philipe, Lilli Palmer, Léa Padovani, Gérard Séty, Lino Ventura, Anouk Aimée