Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 5, 2014
Ah, the arts. From literature and poetry to music and theater, all have been portrayed on film. Artists from sculptors to architects have been given the Hollywood treatment. But when artists become the stars of a movie, the greatest of all visual arts, the cinema, has a difficult task at hand. The task is to translate creativity, something elusive and intangible, into an understandable visual image. That’s not always easy and most of the time, words take over. It seems particularly difficult when the artist is a painter. I just recently watched Alexander Korda’s Rembrandt, from 1936, starring Charles Laughton, and while the movie has a few things to recommend it, what’s particularly odd about it is how it portrays Rembrandt as a captivating speaker who just happened to be a painter. I think I know why: Showing a painter paint is like, well, watching paint dry.
Rembrandt begins with Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton, looking more like the painter than I would have guessed possible) already successful as a painter. His skills and artistry are known throughout Amsterdam and we find him in a paint shop acquiring materials. As to whether he actually did this, I don’t know. I have no idea how anyone acquired art materials in the 1600′s and if they indeed walked into an art supply store and said, “give me some pigments to make paint,” then who am I to disagree? The opening scene also establishes that Rembrandt buys beyond his means, as sellers magically appear in the shop with flowers and jewelry that he wants to buy. His agent informs him he’s spending too much money and going into debt. He will finally have to give in and paint the city’s leaders. He agrees and paints The Night Watch, one of the most famous and acclaimed paintings in history. We don’t actually see him paint it, we just see him agree to paint it, then watch him sign it, then watch everyone hate it. It’s very strange. There’s no point where Rembrandt is ever really seen painting. And that’s fine because, as I alluded to earlier, watching a painter paint isn’t the most exciting cinematic exercise available. But they don’t bother to attempt any moments of inspiration either. A moment where he decides to portray his subjects this way instead of that way. A moment where he talks about why he feels the need to paint in the first place. And when the painting is panned by the madding crowds, they deal with this by not dealing with it. He mocks the crowd then leaves and that’s that. We never see another painting again.
What Rembrandt, the character, does do is orate. In a strange artistic decision, Rembrandt’s greatest gift appears to be public speaking. There are several scenes where Rembrandt holds an audience in rapt silence as he relates a story, spins a tale, or recites a passage from the Bible. The audiences are captivated. The camera pans across them leaning forward, placing their hands under their chins as we can almost see them thinking, “This is fascinating!” The problem is, no matter how much Korda tries to convince us the passages are fascinating by showing the characters being fascinated, it’s not fascinating. Laughton is a great speaker and does his monologues and recitations quite well but they are nothing more than that, recitations. They may have emotional sway with the characters in the movie but whenever he starts another one, and they’re all clearly signaled so you know when he’s starting one, the viewer thinks, “Oh, another one of these. Guess the story will pick back up in a few minutes.”
Only the story doesn’t pick back up because, really, there is no story. That is to say, there’s no real A to B functioning narrative in the movie. Instead, it’s a series of scenes from Rembrandt’s life, not necessarily adding up to anything in particular, including a clear concept of who Rembrandt was and why he painted. We know he loved his first wife, Saskia, because he gives a great monologue to a captivated crowd about how she is his perfect woman and represents all women to him. We know he is frustrated with the way the world works because he gives a speech to his son about how frustrating the world is and how it works. But we really don’t know much about him, the person at all. He loved his first wife and is frustrated at the world. And that’s about it.
In probably the best part of the movie, Rembrandt is forced to return to the countryside where his father lives after his home and possessions are sold to pay off debts. The townsfolk can’t stand him, and he them, and he doesn’t have the physical stamina or prowess to do the hard labor that working on his father’s farm requires. It’s the best moment because it relates to the audience, for the first and only time, that Rembrandt was ill-suited to anything in this world but painting.
He falls in love again after the death of Saskia with a maid, Hendrickje Stoffels (Elsa Lanchester), and they set up a business with him as an employee to avoid his paintings all going to pay off debt. Their relationship, like any other in the movie, isn’t really explored at all. Their scenes together don’t convey any passion or interest and fail to move towards any greater resolution.
So is there enough here to recommend the movie? Actually, yes. For one thing, the performances are uniformly excellent. Charles Laughton is simply superb as the painter, Elsa Lanchester is utterly charming and Gertrude Lawrence is excellent as his first maid, always at the end of her wits with his careless ways. And while those speeches don’t do much for dramatic tension, they do sound awfully good coming from Laughton. Finally, Vincent Korda’s set creation are magnificent. They have just the right look and feel to evoke 17th century Amsterdam and his brother, director Alexander, shoots them in beautifully rich compositions. Each time someone walks outside and crosses through the town’s main street by the harbor, the angles, lighting and extras all assemble into a painting from the director himself. In may not be a lot to recommend it but it’s enough. Laughton is always enough.
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