Over at Shadowplay, I'm hosting a little blogathon on "late films," but it was coincidence that found me screening a fan-subtitled, from-VHS copy of Les amants de Montparnasse (a.k.a. Montparnasse 19), which isn't anybody's last film, exactly, but is a late one in all kinds of ways. Both star Gérard Philipe and director Jacques Becker would be dead within a couple of years, both much too young (Becker went out on the high note of Le trou, while Philipe crammed a further four films into his schedule, including Roger Vadim's Les liaisons dangereuses and Luis Buñuel's Fever Mounts at El Pao). The film itself was the last project planned by Max Ophüls, who died before he could make it. His version would have starred Yves Montand as Modigliani and the actor's real-life wife, Simone Signoret, as Jeanne Hébuterne, his long-suffering partner. Given Signoret's own struggles as partner to the faithless Montand, some of the film's domestic scenes may have carried a painful reality. God knows, Philipe and Anouk Aimée create some powerful emotional turbulence in the version we have.
It's ironic, maybe, that the film begins with a dedication to Ophüls, since Ophüls' script collaborator Henri Jeanson walked off the film and had his name removed from the credits after Becker rewrote much of the scenario. It would be fascinating to see what Ophüls had planned, but of course Becker saw his duty as being to the film, to make the best movie he could, not to honor the intentions of a departed filmmaker. The resulting melding of sensibilities seems seamless, since Becker has been allowed to change what he had to and remain faithful to what appealed. There's certainly a lot of Ophüls' spirit in the movie.
The film details the last years of Amedio Modigliani, who has achieved a minor degree of recognition in Paris, but no financial success. We're told both at the start and at the end that an artist needs appreciation in order to have the confidence to create, but ironically, Modigliani continues to paint throughout the film, producing his masterworks in the face of an indifferent public, censorious officials, crass patrons, and an art world just waiting for him to die before it pounces upon his work.
So perhaps the problem isn't that an artist needs appreciation in order to produce, but that we all need it in order to be happy. Despite the love of his devoted girlfriend, who runs away from her respectable parents in order to be with him, and despite an indifference to poverty which seems quite genuine, "Modi" drinks heavily, self-destructs in slow-motion without rest, and attempts to destroy the loving Jeanne alongside him. It's perfectly fair to wonder whether worldly success would have done anything to stop this. But as played by the sensitive, beautiful Philipe, Modi retains a measure of sympathy even at his beastliest, perhaps a reflection of Aimée's radiant devotion. Philipe certainly excels at drunkenness: in 1953's Les orgueilleux he plays a character who's paralytically soused in every scene, a feat unequalled until Albert Finney's sozzled turn in Under the Volcano. Philipe excels at the rasping whine of the viciously inebriated, and his impersonation of a drunk man's attempt at stealth is pathetically moving.
Anouk Aimée's role might seem on paper the less interesting, but the Ophülsian sympathy with which her blind love is portrayed makes her performance majestic. And Modi's previous lover, Beatrice, is played by Lilli Palmer with a fascinating blend of compassionate and vindictiveness. It's a very nuanced, witty and sly bit of playing, blurring the character's edges until we can't quite tell where she's heading. Sometimes she seems like the embodiment of the world's indifference, tempting the artist into a life of dissipation, to be remembered only by bartenders. At other times she's very much a flesh-and-blood woman, albeit one motivated by innumerable contradictory impulses.
The script seems a mixture of loosely assembled fact, conjecture and outright fantasy, with the fantasy often the most powerful. Since it was Ophüls who placed Lola Montes in a circus, somewhere she never actually worked, my suspicion is that his influence is responsible for the film's more striking departures from the historical record, which really come into effect in the film's powerful climax. Lino Ventura, a Becker favorite appears, an actor whose background as a wrestler would seem to typecast him in a certain kind of role, but who could actually play anything. In this movie he's perfectly convincing as Morel, a fictional art dealer who's quite nakedly written as a figure out of allegory, standing in for the whole culture that profiteers from an artist's work. There's a fascinating tension in his scenes: everything in the script paints Morel as a one-dimensional hiss-figure, the literal embodiment of capitalism's degradation of art and artists, while everything in Ventura's performance paints Morel as a conflicted human figure, driven by deep, contradictory impulses which cannot even be hinted at in mere words. For one thing, it may be that Morel appreciates Modigliani's work more than anybody else in the film: but some demon within him compels him to destroy the artist and exploit his work. It may truly be said that the invention of Morel is the film's masterstroke.
And that ending, so completely false to the established facts (not only does Jeanne not appear to be nine months pregnant in the movie, there's no sign of the earlier child she bore to Modigliani!), takes its power from two things: Ophüls' eternal sympathy for the suffering woman (a suspect sympathy, since he requires his women to suffer: it seems to be the only thing in drama that interests him. But he's no Von Trierish sadist); and the undoubted fact that Modigliani was a failure in his lifetime, and a triumph in death, as the value of his work skyrocketed as soon as he perished.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.