In the alluring art-world documentary “My Rembrandt,” someone describes the experience of being in sudden, direct proximity to a Rembrandt portrait of a standing figure. He says that it was spooky, like seeing a live human loom right up in front of him. Rembrandt, who painted images of astonishing dark tactile severity (“He creates shadows by not painting them,” says one observer), was the mesmeric psychologist of the Old Masters. When you look at one of his paintings, the face it shows is so specific, so lived-in, so there that we seem to be peering directly into the soul of the person it depicts. “My Rembrandt” is a documentary that revels, as any good Rembrandt documentary should, in the extraordinarily subtle majesty with which Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who lived from 1606 to 1669, teased out the living essence of those he painted.
Yet the movie is also about money, power, and the elusive mystique of “value.” The Dutch filmmaker Oeke Hoogendijk takes us inside the stately European homes, many of them quite old, of private citizens who own Rembrandts. A few of them have had the works in their families for generations, like the Duke of Buccleuch, a Scottish aristocrat who lives in a castle on 80,000 misty green acres of God’s countryside. In the estate, his favorite thing to do is to sit with a book and a glass of whiskey underneath “Old Woman, Reading,” the portrait of a hooded lady, her heavy-lidded eyes downcast, her lips taut with pensive judgment, as she focuses on the book in front of her; the more you look, the more you see everything about her that’s not limited to her reaction to that book. Her consciousness vibrates.
Some of the film’s subjects are collectors, like Thomas S. Kaplan, the investment billionaire who used his fortune to start snapping up Rembrandts — though unlike the collectors who keep paintings hidden away, he makes a point of displaying them in museums. At one point we see Kaplan looking, spellbound, at his favorite Rembrandt — a painting the size of a baseball card that depicts a man who looks like the derelict on the cover of “Aqualung” as if he were King Lear. Viewed up close, it’s a mass of thick brush strokes; from a few feet away, it comes close to being a photograph of ravaged despair.
What unites all these people is their maniacal passion for Rembrandt, and that’s a great lens through which to experience the paintings. (The Duke refers to the “Old Woman, Reading” as “her,” as if she were a live presence, with such casual persistence that at times he sounds like an art-patron version of Norman Bates.) Yet Hoogendijk also has a keen eye for drama, and “My Rembrandt” is dotted with anecdotes that snowball into lively art-world clashes of ego.
The film’s essential narrative gathers around Jan Six, a sleek descendant of Rembrandt’s whose family owns a number of them (including the 1654 “Portrait of Jan Six,” a painting of his insinuating orange-mop-topped ancestor). He spots a painting of a young man in the Christie’s catalogue that’s described as being in the Rembrandt family — that is, painted by an associate. As the 80-year-old Dutch art historian Ernst van de Wetering tells us, there was an overproduction of Rembrandts that aren’t actually Rembrandts but look like Rembrandts. (In the authentication process, he has done things like count threads of canvas to see if they came from the same roll as an established work.)
Jan Six buys the painting at auction for 110,000 Euro, and when de Wetering looks at it, he declares that it’s not a Rembrandt. Then Six takes the painting to stand it next to the master’s fabled portrait of Martin Soolman; the lace collars have a striking similarity, as does the whole spatial dynamic of the painting. But that still doesn’t prove anything, and the curators on hand remain skeptical.
Yet the face! No pun intended, but Jan Six believes it’s “so fucking in-your-face” that the painting is a genuine Rembrandt. And we look at that face (it’s the one pictured above), and he’s right. The young man could be a cherubically beautiful ’70s rock star, framed by bangs and long hair, and he is so timeless in his expressiveness that the effect is unmistakable. The painting gets taken back to Ernst van de Wetering, who looks at the magnificent filigreed cuff, and at the face, and decrees that, yes, it’s a Rembrandt — and the reason he missed it the first time was that he was so used to the Rembrandts in the canon that the shock of the new threw him askew. He couldn’t accept that it was real.
“My Rembrandt” glides from the sublime to the political, tracing the fallout from several rival attempts to latch onto Rembrandt’s glory. Jan Six becomes a media hero in Amsterdam for having discovered a new Rembrandt (the first in 40 years), but the celebration is short-lived. It turns out that he screwed over a dealer friend of his whom he’d arranged to buy the painting with at auction (when it shot past the limit they’d agreed upon, he just kept bidding), and this becomes a gossipy scandal of opportunism.
The film also traces the testy collaboration between France and the Netherlands in purchasing that portrait of Marten Soolmans — and the even more stunning one of his wife, Oopjen Coppit — for $160 million, the largest sum ever paid for works by Old Masters. The sale connects the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and points to how world-class museums have egos too. “My Rembrandt” is loose and exploratory — a series of portraits of those obsessed with Rembrandt portraits. It’s a documentary knowing enough to make you realize that Rembrandt, 400 years ago, may have been the first documentarian.