Given an artist residency grant in 1999, noted U.S. experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer intended to make a film about the famous Southern France-on-the-Mediterranean light that inspired so many great painters. But war’s breakout in Kosovo instead turned her attention to political matters, resulting in a docu more concerned with refugees and Resistance fighters in this area of Southern France during WWII, as well as the role of art and artists under enemy occupation. Somewhat peculiar mix of personal and historical inquiry makes for an intriguing, absorbing hybrid that’s especially apt for Jewish fests and intellectually adventuresome educational tube slots.
Principal thread is the correspondence between contemporary painting giants Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, which as excerpted here paints a portrait of the celebrated artist as apolitical, self-absorbed and oblivious to all save the inconveniences wrought by distasteful “war and politics.” Matisse’s closest relatives felt differently: His wife, son and daughter Marguerite risked their lives in service of the Resistance, with Marguerite narrowly avoiding a concentration camp.
Stories of German antifascist Lisa Fittko, French mayoral secretary Marie-Ange Allibert (who helped Jews get false identity cards) and brilliant philosopher Walter Benjamin’s unsuccessful attempt to flee Nazi Europe (he committed suicide in 1940 Spain) are woven in via survivor interviews and archival materials.
Asking how war effects the creation of art, not to mention the artist’s own social responsibility, Hammer — whose films have frequently spoken more specifically from her roots in ’70s radical lesbian feminism — clearly has scant sympathy for those who abstain from taking a stand under crisis. Her view doesn’t permit acknowledgement that much great art is apolitical — and many great artists have, for better or worse, been incapable of seeing past their own obsessive art and ego.
Seemingly tenuous connection between various themes is granted strong stylistic unification by helmer’s imaginative deployment of layered multiple images, occasional impressionistic animation and brief staged sequences using actors as historical figures.