Tag Archives: art

Schalcken the Painter

Schalcken the Painter

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 18 November 2013

Distributor: BFI

Director: Leslie Mehagey

Writer: Leslie Mehagey

Based on: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’

Cast: Jeremy Clyde, Maurice Denham, Cheryl Kennedy, John Justin, Charles Gray

UK, 1979

70 mins

First aired on the BBC on 23rd December 1979, Leslie Mehagey’s Schalcken the Painter is lush, weird, postmodern and creepy. Based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 ghost story, both works craft an unsettling fiction around real 17th-century Dutch painters, Godfried Schalcken and his tutor, Gerrit Dou. Pitching his script as an arts lecture that morphs into a horror story, Megahey plays with Le Fanu’s use of historical figures by presenting the film as a documentary, a trick aided by its screening as part of the arts series Omnibus. The film meticulously recreates the interiors made famous by the Dutch masters, lifting them from the gallery wall, and having our protagonists inhabit them.

The film’s opening is slow and elegant, establishing Dou (Maurice Denham) and Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) as deeply unsympathetic characters. Despite the film’s aesthetic beauty, the events it depicts are ugly, as Dou willingly sells his young niece, Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), into a grotesque but lucrative marriage. Despite his sincere affections for Rose, Schalcken is so paralysed by his own aspiration to succeed as an artist under Dou that he does nothing to help the woman he claims to love.

The film works on two levels: firstly, as a slow-burning morality tale in which we wait with unpleasant anticipation for Schalcken’s punishment; and secondly, as a critique on the relationship between art and commerce, sex and money. Thus we return to the ghost story as arts lecture, with the film commenting on the commodification of 17th-century Dutch painting, where private patronage led artists away from spiritual or lyrical subjects towards depicting the plush interiors of the people controlling the purse-strings.

As for the film’s Schalcken, after he trades passion for ambition, we spy on him visiting a parade of prostitutes and employing peasants as models, who we watch undress and pose. A product of its time, Schalcken the Painter is part feminist attack on the brutality of marriage contracts, part exploitation movie as we’re treated to plenty of female flesh. However, the film’s climactic scene undercuts any earlier titillation with an image that is horrific, as opposed to erotic.

The film’s Gothic flashes, matched with the deadpan conceit that what we are watching is a documentary, intensify the contrast between the veracity of the film’s period details and its supernatural elements. In particular, the real Schalcken’s celebrated representation of candlelight is exquisitely mimicked, and yet it is this feature of his painting that is dramatised to suggest the corruption of the character’s soul.

It’s difficult to imagine this as festive viewing. But like Jonathan Miller’s stunning adaptation of M. R. James’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You, also produced by Omnibus for the BBC’s BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, this is no cosy Dickensian tale. Yet where Miller’s work is visceral, Schalcken the Painter is typified by a cold restraint, like the paintings it honours. However, beneath its cool intellectualism there lurks a pessimism about the human condition that chills to the bone.

A cult classic, not to be missed.

Stephanie King

The Belly of an Architect

The Belly of an Architect

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 18 June 2012

Distributor: BFI

Director: Peter Greenaway

Writer: Peter Greenaway

Cast: Brian Dennehy, Chloe Webb, Lambert Wilson, Sergio Fantoni

UK/Italy 1987

119 mins

The films that Peter Greenaway made in the 1980s, even the lesser known examples shot between The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), all share many aspects. These include deliberate camera movements across elegant tableaux vivants, an interest in food, sex and mortality, visual and textual references to art and mathematics and a score by Michael Nyman. This is not say that these films are disappointing in any way, but just that if you’ve seen one of them you know what to expect from the others. Having seen all of the director’s 1980s films except The Belly of an Architect, I wasn’t surprised by its style, pace and content - and even though Nyman didn’t score this film, Wim Marten’s music is very similar in style.

In this 1987 rumination on sex, death, art and food, underrated character-actor Brian Dennehy is cast against type as an intellectual romantic lead, in contrast to his usual roles as cops and agents of the law in quirky thrillers and Westerns. Dennehy plays overweight architect Stourley Kracklite, whose obsessions with intestinal disease and mounting an exhibition on the fantastical French neo-classical architect í‰tienne-Louis Boullée are costing him his marriage and sanity.

Boullée is an apt obsession for Kracklite, who is better known for his uncompleted and lost projects rather than the few that survive. Echoing the grand follies that his 18th-century forebear wanted to leave as his legacy, the modern architect struggles with realising his predecessor’s work in an exhibition beset by spiralling costs and local meddlers who want to seduce his wife or invite him to feasts, adding to his already prodigious waist line. As each generation of architects is bound to be replaced by the next unless they are able to realise monumental projects within their lifetimes, Kracklite is doomed from the moment he enters Italy while impregnating his wife on a train - her pregnancy mimicking the tumour that is growing within his belly.

Greenaway beautifully lets each of the architect’s obsessions contrast with the other: while he finds and enlarges numerous photocopies of classical sculptures that fill the floor of his apartment, his self-obsession drives his wife into the arms of another, who can worship her body in his stead. The director chooses a variety of stunning backdrops across Rome and his lead actor’s physical presence contrasts well with the classical landscape.

As the eponymous belly expands with a tumour inside and the story winds its way to inescapable tragedy, Greenaway’s film adds to the legacy of sex and death attached to Italian cities on film. From the endless murder and copulation in the ancient Rome featured in Caligula (1979) to cannibalism and revenge in modern day Florence in Hannibal (1991) - not to mention most of Dario Argento‘s oeuvre - it seems that the spectre of reoccurring carnal tragedy haunts dramas played out in classical metropolises south of the Alps.

While the finale may seem inevitable from early on and the directing style telegraphed in advance, the film is both solid and morbidly reassuring, like the architecture it promotes, as well as sumptuous and easily digestible like the feasts and wine that hasten the architect’s demise.

Alex Fitch