Klimt – a film review

If life seems to be rushing by in a flash, if weeks appear to pass in an instant and you wish everything would just slow down a little, then take in a screening of Klimt, where you’ll spend an hour and thirty-seven minutes that feel like an eternity.

The film is written and directed by Raoul Ruiz and stars John Malkovich as the great Viennese painter, Gustav Klimt, and right from the top, as the opening credits roll above a musical score composed by Jorge Arriagada, you know that something is terribly wrong.

The music is faux-Mahler, with Arriagada creating a pastiche of Mahleresque orchestration, phrasing and sudden shifts of mood and tempo without, needless to say, any of that composer’s genius. Later on you hear snippets of Berg’s Violin Concerto – specifically the open 5ths from the beginning of that work – accompanied by cheap, faux-Berg. If Ruiz was so intent on incorporating the musical sounds of the era, perhaps he should have used original compositions, as Visconti did so evocatively with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony Adagietto for the Death in Venice soundtrack. But that might have created an equally serious problem for Mr. Ruiz: a brilliant musical score overwhelming a tedious, disjointed and incoherent film.

There is no plot line, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But the film tells us little about Klimt himself, and unlike the great art films – and this film is trying its hardest to be an art film – it sheds no real light on the human condition.

The film opens with Klimt, the victim of syphilis, on his deathbed, and the “story” unfolds as a hallucinatory dream. Characters inexplicably weave in and out of the narrative. There is the requisite discussion of art, and the viewer learns too that Klimt really liked sex, and had lots of children for whom he took no responsibility. Malkovich sleepwalks through the role.

Klimt is such a huge disappointment because, with the rich material it had to draw from and the talent involved in making it, it should have been much better.

Great works of art often present demands on the public. Just like the film’s musical score, with its veneer of Mahler and Berg, Klimt has the aspirations and veneer of great art without being art. It looks intellectual, and is difficult to understand – but dig into it and you find there just ain’t much there.