In “The King of Nerac,” a documentary about the British painter-sculptor David Breuer-Weil, only one voice is heard — that of the artist himself. His commentary, less chronological than free-associative, launches filmmakers Annie Sulzberger and Guy Natanel on a geo-biographical odyssey from London to Denmark to Cambridge to the imaginary kingdom of Nerac. But Breuer-Weil’s whimsical charm and keen intelligence might have grown wearisome if not counterbalanced by the disquieting power and punch of his work. In its peripatetic way, the film delivers a remarkably detailed study of one man’s artistic process, while the sheer size of his huge statues and canvases invites bigscreen play.
Breuer-Weil sees his existence as a series of complementary extremes. His initial 10-year career as an expert at Sotheby’s required him to appraise artworks purely as commodities, while also allowing him an intimate, unlimited access quite apart from any monetary connection. We see his appreciation as, coffee in one hand and glass-framed artwork in the other, he traces the lines on a Degas drawing, or muses about Cezanne’s rough sketch of his infant son. Similarly, his time spent in London — busily dealing with galleries and museums, or painting in his studio with great bursts of energy — is offset by respites at his mother’s home in Denmark, where he roams the fields, feeds sheep and gazes out over the lake where Nazis killed the grandfather he never knew.
He tells of being driven to make art by a greater paradox: In the wake of the Holocaust and subsequent global atrocities, artists turned away from depictions of humanity and human suffering to limn soup cans and multiple Marilyn Monroes. Not so Breuer-Weil. His enormous canvases of myriad figures embedded in crevices of the earth, pressed between pages of a book, spilling down from spheres or piled upward in narrowing spirals create a sense of malaise and oppression not specific to any one conflict, but resonant with the weight of them all. His giant sculptures — one of them of an alien fallen from the sky, and another one of the upper half of a humongous head floating incongruously in a lake — disturb the peace of English parks and farther-flung corners of the planet.
He visits his warehouses, pulling out one oversize canvas after another to illustrate his recent “Project” project, of which there are four discrete parts thus far (each consisting of anywhere from 50 to more than 100 works), which are visually and thematically linked; his latest features celestial spheres orbiting and spinning in space.
Helmers Salzburger and Natanel create their own contrasts between the artist and his work — they start from peaceful outdoor compositions of Breuer-Weil lying in repose on a bench or in a hammock, then pan down to one of his outsize, angst-inducing canvases spread out on the grass beneath him. But the filmmakers reserve the most surprising opposition for last — that between Breuer-Weil and his various alter egos, the artists of the imaginary kingdom of Nerac whose names he signs along with his own on the canvases they co-create. Sulzberger and Natanel show Breuer-Weil performing an antic “Neracian” dance (Michael Csanyi-Wills’ score obligingly waxes cutely folkloric), but the phenomenological marvel of this parallel universe proves less the stuff of personal fantasy than a means of cataloging a fractured artistic identity.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of these Neracian alter egos, stretching back decades, some having lasted mere hours, some for days or months, and some, very rarely, for a year or two, their “self-portraits” executed in different styles, sketched on tiny stamp-sized pieces of paper. They constitute a fascinating series of snapshots of different stages and possibilities for the creative mind.