Friday, 20 January 2012

#22 France — The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979)

Why I chose this: I flip-flopped a lot here. I watched a number of French films in the last few weeks; Rivette's surreal Celine and Julie Go Boating, a re-watch of Last Year at Marienbad — a personal favourite — and a relatively unknown 70s production called The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. Another possibility would be Les Enfants Du Paradis, which I think is the best standard-style film ever made. Eventually I settled on the least known one; there's nothing I love more than finding hidden gems, so hopefully I'll satisfy others with this interest.

The late Raoul Ruiz was an unfortunate victim of chance. Despite making over 100 features and possessing a film-making skill to rival all of cinema's best, he never achieved the worldwide recognition of, say, Bunuel or Godard.

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting is, on the surface, a film where two narrators — one seen and one unseen — discuss progressively contrived theories of how a series of paintings join up. Further down, it is a very wry satire on art criticism and interpretation.

I don't think I have ever second-guessed myself more than I did watching this. I myself formulated convoluted ideas on what the film was trying to say, then realised the more that I thought about them and the more obscure they got, the more I was falling into the film's trap and doing exactly what it was satirising. There is a sort of meta-irony in there that would make this film a hipster's wet dream.

The cinematography by frequent Resnais and Greenaway collaborator, Sacha Vierny is stunning. The frames are sharp, shadowy and thoughtfully composed, presenting tableux vivants of the eponymous paintings. Vierny's work on Last Year at Marienbad is felt many times, although never quite reaching the utter perfection of Marienbad's images.

The narrative structure is effective and surreal. We move through the paintings, one by one, before witnessing a kind of snapshot of the paintings intertwined at the end. This compliments the absurdity of the theories in a similar fashion to Bunuel's narratives running alongside the crazy lives of the bourgeoisie.

Although one could discuss theories about the film until Ruiz started rolling in his grave, this would completely miss the point of the film. The satire is fairly subtle, but executed in a way that shows these critics or theorists to be childishly endearing rather than simply calling them idiots. I think they — myself included, as I probably fall under this banner — would perhaps prefer the latter, however. Even if one doesn't catch/pay attention to this facet of the film, they can easily get swept along by the excellent cinematography, surreal atmosphere and complex theorising.

Also recommended from France:
Marcel Carne (Les Enfants du Paradis, Port of Shadows)
Alain Resnais (Last Year At Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Night and Fog)
Jean-Luc Godard (Pierrot Le Fou, Breathless)
Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai, Army of Shadows)
Jaques Tati (Play Time, Mon Oncle)
Krzystof Kieslowski (Three Colours Trilogy)

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