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Klimt

A Pretty Yet Hopelessly Imperfect Portrait

John Malkovich has spent his career embracing roles as varied as they are intriguing and unusual. He almost never plays against type because, after convincingly reinventing himself so many times, there is no type. The roles he chooses defy any pattern. Even so, after playing a flamboyant fraud in 2005’s Color Me Kubrick and Austrian painter Gustav Klimt in the latest offering from Chilean-born director Raúl Ruiz, Malkovich’s affection for the offbeat has rarely been so apparent.

As he did with Kubrick impersonator Alan Conway, whose reckless addiction to decadence was born either from greed or true madness, he renders Klimt an almost impenetrable enigma. One minute, he seems tender, sincere, even loving; the next, he is aloof, condescending and, at worst, violent. The only thing that remains unchanged is his unwavering appreciation of the female form.

And that is precisely what earned Klimt the scorn of his Viennese contemporaries. While his colorful, sexually explicit works were heralded as masterpieces in Italy and France, his vivid depictions of the naked body were considered scandalous in his homeland. Klimt touches on this controversy, as well as the artist’s dubious habit of fathering illegitimate children (more than 30, by Ruiz’s count) but the film is less concerned with his personal and professional résumé than in capturing the essence of his fierce, indomitable spirit.

Like Fur, Steven Shainberg’s ambitious but critically reviled portrait of photographer Diane Arbus, Klimt isn’t so much biographical as an abstract, impressionistic fantasy. If it is a linear life story you seek, look elsewhere. Here, Ruiz plays fast and loose with his narrative, if indeed it can be called that, as he skips around to some of the more chaotic interludes in Klimt’s life, often in confusing fashion.

There are moments of striking beauty, as Ruiz attempts to paint a masterpiece of his own with the aid of cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, and some of them pay off – Klimt is never boring. Aronovich’s habit of layering image upon image, playing with visual reality, elevates Ruiz’s portrait to a point, and Malkovich delivers a typically sturdy performance as an eccentric, misunderstood genius. (Understood geniuses, if there are any, rarely make it into movies.) Judged on coherence, however, the film is unworkable.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars