Isaki Lacuesta’s debut documentary, “Cravan vs. Cravan,” spins a riveting hour and a half out of the strange life and stranger death of the marginal figure of Arthur Cravan, the early 20th-century poet, boxer and Dadaist who made his life his art. The stranger-than-fiction raw material is compelling enough in itself, but Lacuesta crafts it well, shuttling nimbly between personal recollections, old footage, talking heads and dramatic recreation in a manner which discloses something of the life of its complex subject while also contributing to the legend. Perfect for cult-seekers, pic took the public prize at the recent Sitges fest and has done low-key theatrical at home during October and November. Fest and international tube showings are its likely fate.
French boxer-turned cineaste Frank Nicotra goes in search of the elusive Cravan, who was the nephew of Oscar Wilde and whose own father disappeared when the boy (real name: Fabian Lloyd) was three months old. Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, Cravan ran away at 16 and traveled widely before settling in Paris where he wrote poetry, hung out with bohemians like Ravel and Duchamp, edited an alternative arts magazine, gave public speeches naked, faked his own death, tried out different personalities and honed his boxing skills.
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A lengthy debate about the true origin of paintings ascribed to Cravan, and his draft dodging at the start of WWI, are the prelude to pic’s busy final half-hour, centered on his Barcelona fight with world heavyweight champ Jack Johnson (Cravan was KO’d in Round 1) and his intense relationship (here tenderly recreated) with poet/artist Mina Loy. Cravan set sail from Mexico and disappeared without trace in 1918, at age 32.
Pic raises complex issues about the way Cravan created his own myth, though without becoming philosophically abstract: There are plenty of raw facts for interviewees — including Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland; Spanish painter Eduardo Arroyo; and Juli Lorente, who attended the Cravan-Johnson bout — on which to chew.
Nictora’s close identification with Cravan generates an intimate link between the subject and the viewer, though there’s too much of Nictora’s own boxing exploits. Likewise, a series of aging Spanish pugilists reminiscing and a sequence showing bullfight gorings seem to belong in a different film.
Brief recreations of key moments bring the shaky old recordings (there are only two minutes of extant footage of the man) and blurred old photos to dramatic life, with the final 20 minutes feeling a little rushed as the out-there events pile up. For the record, one commentator theorizes Rene Clair’s surrealistic 1924 debut, “Entr’acte,” is based on Cravan’s life.