Even tantalizing glimpses of 20th-century Anglo-Irish modernist Eileen Gray’s most iconic designs, including scenes shot in the seminal E-1027, a seaside villa she built for her former lover Jean Badovici on France’s Côte d’Azur, fail to compensate for the rest of the treacle comprising “The Price of Desire.” Essentially a recounting of how envious Swiss architect Le Corbusier effectively undermined Gray’s artistry and for many years obscured her place in the design pantheon, this tedious 2014 production from Irish multi-hyphenate Mary McGuckian (“Man on the Train”) receives a belated digital and on-demand release via Giant Pictures on June 2.
Gray’s remarkable life, talent and legacy receives more inspiring treatment in “Gray Matters,” a companion documentary helmed at the same time by Marco Antonio Orsini, available on iTunes.
“It’s the price of desire,” quips the collector queried about the unprecedented $28 million she pays for Gray’s sensual art deco “dragon’s armchair” at an auction in 2008 (a scene re-created for the beginning of the film), but desire and its toll also underlie the actions of the tale’s two antagonists, the creatively gifted, financially independent, bisexual Gray (Orla Brady, wasted) and the pompous, sexually frustrated Le Corbusier (Vincent Perez), serving as the villain of the piece. Sadly, the fact that Brady and Francesco Scianna, the actor portraying her lover Badovici evince absolutely no on-screen chemistry undercuts audience belief in their great passion.
As realized by writer-director McGuckian, pedantic sexist “Corbu” is the liveliest character, frequently turning to the camera to confide his feelings that he has supported Gray’s work at the expense of his own and expressing jealousy over the womanizing success of his friend, French-Romanian architect and critic Badovici. Scenes in which Le Corbusier breaks the fourth wall (played by Perez with appropriate snark) are the most creative in a visually staid, low-budget film that cries out for a lot more spark.
When Gray meets Badovici (15 years her junior), in the 1920s, she is a highly successful furniture designer with her own Parisian gallery and several female lovers, including Marise Damia (Alanis Morissette), seen performing an excruciating version of “La Marseillaise.” Badovici writes about Gray for various architectural journals and teaches her some basics of the trade. Before you know it, she creates for him the ultimate gift, an entrancing white-walled villa sited in harmony with nature, full of minimalist spaces furnished with her fabulous interior designs (exquisite chairs, adjustable tables, colorful rugs, an imposing day bed) for maximal comfort.
Although Fernand Leger (a sympathetic Dominique Pinon) wants to write about the villa, Badovici has already promised a treatise to his publication, L’Architecture Vivante. His piece, which he asks Gray to co-sign, is one of the first things to call in question her sole responsibility for the villa’s design. After Badovici and Gray separate, he allows Le Corbusier to paint colorful and sexually graphic murals on the white walls, both inside and out, spoiling the integrity of Gray’s artistic vision.
And so it goes. Gray pays the price for her foolish love, continually humiliated by the male worshipers of Le Corbusier. Corbu doesn’t bother to invite Gray to an assembly of modernist architects that he organizes, he doesn’t correct people who confuse his murals with some other sort of creative authorship of the villa. Indeed, he’s so obsessed with E-1027 that he buys several plots of land nearby.
After WWII (represented by the lame cliché of some jackbooted German soldiers firing their pistols into the murals), Le Corbusier sources government money to restore his artwork. When Badovici dies, he finds someone to buy the home he cannot afford, but who will provide the appropriate care for his “culturally significant” murals. Amusingly, the highest bidder, Aristotle Onassis, who wants to whitewash them, finds his offer refused. Ultimately, Le Corbusier even dies within sight of the villa, drowning in the sea beneath its terraces.
Although Gray maintains that she is happier to create things than possess them, she is unable to have E-1027 restored to her vision. Happily, however, she lives to see her sole creation of the villa recognized and her artistic legacy once again acclaimed.
Marking the 11th independent feature of helmer-writer-producer McGuckian, “Desire” does nothing to burnish her reputation. One can see how appealing this story of her compatriot must have been from both an artistic and feminist point of view, but the finished product does neither woman any favors. It’s filled with risible dialogue, a visual style more suited to a Côte d’Azur fashion video (the slow motion, the tasteful, slightly obscured sex scenes), and plastered with an undistinguished score by Brian Byrne (“Albert Nobbs”).
The long final credit crawl lists dozens of characters from Gray’s artistic milieu that are never seen on screen, perhaps explaining why the editing, credited to a team of five, seems so choppy and stilted. Even the characters who survive, such as Romaine Brooks (Elsa Zylberstein), lack context and identification.