Roughly midway through “Paula,” Christian Schwochow’s lush, involving biopic of iconoclastic German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, artistically inclined viewers will notice a brief character cameo by Camille Claudel — the ill-fated French sculptor who has received two major big-screen portraits of her own. Her fleeting appearance in the narrative may cue us to expect an equivalent tale of woe, yet while “Paula’s” script repeatedly signposts its heroine’s untimely demise, it’s a film that daubs an unexpected range of tones, from the tragically romantic to the jauntily comic, onto the canvas with free abandon. Modersohn-Becker’s naive expressionistic style wasn’t subtle, so it’s apt enough that “Paula” often paints with a pretty broad brush; following its Locarno premiere, the attractive result should engage mainstream arthouse audiences at home (hitting German theaters just before Christmas) and abroad.
“My life shall be a short, intense party,” declares Paula (sparkily played by Carla Juri, seen most recently in the Sundance hit “Morris From America”) early on in proceedings, before announcing her ambition to leave the world with “three good paintings and a child.” It’s not the only time the film’s screenplay, developed over a period of nearly 30 years by veteran German scribes Stefan Kolditz and Stephan Suschke, goes in for rather schematic foreshadowing — though it hardly needs to be said that Modersohn-Becker, the first female painter in history with a museum devoted exclusively to her work, had considerably more good work to her name when she died in 1907. Whirling and busy with incident, “Paula” certainly captures the intensity of her life, with its artistic escapes to Paris, flirtations with hedonism and belated sexual awakening; as parties go, however, it could still be rather a lonely one.
The opening stages of “Paula” promise a familiar enough tale of one plucky woman overcoming substantial adversity in an aggressively guarded man’s world. “Women will never produce anything creative apart from children,” bleats Fritz Mackensen (Nicki von Tempelhoff), her condescending instructor at a Worpswede artists’ colony, “correcting” her unorthodox brush technique by forcibly guiding her hand. (Call it “manspainting,” if you will.) But while feminist resolve drives much of the storytelling, the film’s gender politics grow more complicated in its study of her rocky romance with fellow painter Otto Modersohn (a fine Albrecht Abraham Schuch), an ostensibly kind figure with limited understanding of his wife’s gifts.
A widower whose superstitious fear of loss leads him to keep his marriage to Paula cruelly unconsummated for several years, Otto hovers on the brink of enlightenment, but remains susceptible to Mackensen’s chauvinistic bluster. He eventually agrees to fund his frustrated wife’s studies at L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris — where sculptor Clara Westhoff (Roxane Duran) and poet Rainer Maria Rilke (Joel Basman) welcome her into the expat bohemian fold — though as she drifts further away from her marriage, her material demands on her husband increase. Neither the script nor Juri’s performance shy away from a certain hard-edged petulance in the character; however sympathetic her social circumstances, not every one of the film’s cards is stacked in her favor, as it evolves into an affectingly even-handed anatomy of a loving but dysfunctional marriage. (It should be noted that certain biographical and chronological details — particularly pertaining to Modersohn’s first marriage — have been slightly fudged here in the interest of romantic and dramatic tidiness.)
As is often the case with artist biopics, “Paula” has a slightly harder time dramatizing its subject’s unusual creative process, often settling for familiar tics of fey, impulsive inspiration (“Your emotions only express your lack of technique,” chides Mackensen) and well-worn observations on the relationship between art, hardship and loneliness. The filmmakers and their mischievous leading lady are generally on surer footing with ecstasy than agony, anyway: A sustained sequence detailing Paula’s sensual education at the hands of dreamy, guyliner-sporting Parisian painter Georges (Stanley Weber), tied into the creation of her famous nude self-portrait, is among the film’s loveliest.
Craft aspects are all of a suitably high standard, even if the film’s ornate design elements seem inspired less by Paula’s own bold, heavily stylized paintings than past depictions of its well-decorated period: Costume designer Frauke Firl has particular fun with the gaudy, bustling excesses of Art Nouveau-era Paris and the heavy tweedy dourness of what Paula comes to regard as “Philistine” Germany. Frank Lamm’s soft, burnished lensing doesn’t shy away from rosy-gold filters toward the beginning — perhaps intentionally draping proceedings in the prettified 19th-century aesthetic Paula Modersohn-Becker labored so defiantly to escape.