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  • Ravi Swami

"Montparnasse 19" - Dir:Jacques Becker, 1958

Nov' 5th 2020 and the U.K is into another comprehensive lockdown and my exploration of cinema on various streaming services has taken a break for shows like "Strictly Come Dancing" and "The Great British Bake-Off" to demand my attention, with an occasional detour such as watching Disney's "Darby O'Gill and The Little People" on Disney+ following the passing of Sean Connery - a film worth checking out not just for Connery, in pre-Bond form before Disney prematurely released him from a promising 5 year contract, but also for the late Janet Munro, an actress who showed a lot of promise in several films in the U.K and Hollywood before death in her mid 30's - there are also the superb, mostly in-camera visual effects created to show people interacting with leprechauns which have never been bettered in the digital era - OK, maybe with the exception of Peter Jackson's "LOTR" films.

There is a longish list of films that I haven't covered yet in this series of blog posts so I'm going back to review films that I watched early in lockdown or relatively recently, such as Jacques Becker's "Montparnasse 19", or "Les Amants de Montparnasse" to give it its French title.

The main draw for me was to watch Anouk Aimee in an early role since although I knew of her it was only via a very narrow selection of films, and the BFI website lists several films that she has appeared in within European cinema, including a few iconic roles such as Jacques Demi's "Lola" and Fellini's "81/2" - besides that she has always seemed a bit enigmatic and her looks don't fit with the conventional Hollywood notions about glamour or beauty - she has an interesting and watchable face rather like Jeanne Moreau or Annie Girardot.

"Montparnasse 19" is a rather romanticized depiction of the life of the painter Amedeo Modigliani and a key relationship with his last two muses/lovers, Beatrice Hastings, played by Lilli Palmer, and Jeanne Hébuterne, played by Anouk Aimee. Modigliani is played by Gerard Philipe, a popular cinema idol in France before a premature death, somewhat mirroring the dissolute, drug and alcohol addicted painter he is playing in the film, and with whom he bears an uncanny resemblance.

Modigliani hailed from an aristocratic Italian family but his life as an artist was of the archetypal "artist starving in a garret", something he shared in common with many of the artists who congregated in Montparnasse, such as Picasso, as they strove to rewrite and disrupt the rules of painting during a fertile period of European art, fated to only know success posthumously when their work commanded astronomical prices.

Becker takes several liberties with the facts in order to craft a doomed romance and the tortured soul at the heart of it since a straightforward factual reconstruction may have confirmed audience opinions about art as a career choice, primarily to broaden its appeal beyond the middle classes or amongst those in the know about modern painting.

There is a lot to enjoy in this film - started by Max Ophuls and completed by Becker, whose work encompassed a wide range of genres, in particular the well-scripted and performed banter between Palmer's Hastings, playing a rejected lover, and Philipe's Modigliani, and the late appearance of Lino Ventura as a creepy art dealer who shadows Modigliani's Icarian descent from short-lived glory to early death from tuberculosis is worth waiting for.

And of course, let's not forget the lovely Anouk Aimee, who was the original "raison d'être" for watching the film in the first place, playing the fragile and impetuous Jeanne Hébuterne, who runs away from her wealthy middle-class family to be with the poverty-stricken Modigliani.


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