An aging, fading film director is not given the treatment he deserves in “Artifice,” based on the life of and starring onetime director Enrique Belloch. The subject is pregnant with possibilities only occasionally fulfilled, since the pic’s helmer, Jose Enrique March, overstretches himself by making this not only an homage to Belloch, but also a flashy exercise in cinematic technique. Artifice gives way to pretentious artificiality, getting in the way of the good story. But flashes of aching lyricism suggest March has potential, and are probably enough to propel the film festward.
Belloch made a single feature in 1982, “False Eyelashes,” which was never released (it was also Antonio Banderas’ first film). In “Artifice,” Belloch plays a director named Quique. Aging and losing his mind, he summons his younger sister, thesp Marta (Maria Jose Peris), to help him set up a final project, which inevitably never transpires. They spend a lot of time bitterly and theatrically hurling insults at one another in the sound studio the frustrated director has set up in order to maintain some contact with the film industry.
Marta, aided by her friend Marcos (Inaki Miramon), is trying to stage a play in a Valencia theater on the point of collapse. The increasingly fragile Quique falls under the delusion that the play is in fact a homage to him. Nurse Amador (Paco Martinez) is hired to look after Quique, prompting superfluous coverage detailing Amador’s relationships.
Making the pic must surely have been a painful, complex experience for Belloch, but little of that pain comes across. His bravery in subjecting his own life — a self-described failure — to such treatment is commendable, even brave given the fact he comes here as rather egotistical, demanding, deluded, and not always the most competent actor, even when playing himself. Such straightforward sincerity merits straightforward treatment, but Belloch doesn’t get it.
Pic begins with Super 8 images of imagined films made by a young Quique, projected on a white sheet. Quique tells us that this is all you need to make a movie, but “Artifice” doesn’t heed this advice, and soon the storyline is shot to pieces via hit-and-miss, look-at-me collage techniques that shuttle between past and present, fact and fantasy, as Quique’s mind slips. “If you look at ‘The Big Sleep,’ it makes no sense,” Quique notes, perhaps arrogantly, by way of justification.
Several memorable moments just about justify the ride, including a beautiful scene in which Quique wanders through a garden full of projected images of his memories and his heartbreaking reflection that, “The three acts of a life are always: ‘Once upon a time,’ ‘Some years passed,’ and ‘Then suddenly, one day.'” The final shot is similarly haunting and suggests the pic would have benefited from exchanging all the visual fireworks for a tighter focus on the man at its heart.