Amedeo Modigliani was an artistic phenomenon with a distinctive style unlike anything his cubist contemporaries had ever seen. So unique, in fact, that he never achieved proper recognition or financial success during his lifetime. In Montparnasse 19, Jacques Becker chronicles the final years of Modigliani’s troubled life. We first meet Modigliani (Gerard Philipe), or “Modi” as his friends call him (a play on maudit or accursed), sketching the profile of a bar patron, who has promised to compensate him with a round of drinks for the artist and his friends. The patron is given the interpretive image, but is disappointed by its lack of resemblance, and politely refuses it. Modigliani is undisciplined and volatile, prone to violence and chemical excesses (in addition to his alcoholism, his opium use is briefly mentioned). But not everyone doubts his genuine talent. His lover, writer Beatrice Hastings (Lilli Palmer), promotes his work in her magazine articles. His agent and neighbor, Sborowsky (Gerard Sety), continues to represent him, despite his unmarketability: paying his rent, offering words of encouragement, actively seeking out potential buyers. Even Modigliani’s art professor calls him “maestro”, and invites him to the academy so that he can have a suitable environment for painting. It is in the academy that he meets a young student named Jeanne (Anouk Aimee), who defies her parents and abandons her privilege life to live with the struggling artist. Inspired by Jeanne and a change in atmosphere, his passion for his work is briefly resurrected, only to be extinguished by the failure of his exhibition. Morel (Lino Ventura), a successful art dealer, confesses his recognition of Modigliani’s talent and importance to Sborowsky, but refrains from purchasing his works until he can strike a better deal – when Modigliani is desperate and needy – and refuses to support the artist.
Montparnasse 19 is a visually stunning and emotionally haunting examination of a misunderstood artist and the caustic irony of fame. Becker uses camera movement and repeated images to reflect Modigliani’s aimless, often misguided life. Episodes of intoxication, bars, and visiting mistresses (usually, as much for drinks as for pleasure) pervade the film, rather than showing the artist at work, reflecting Modigliani’s lack of focus and self-destructive behavior. The opening panning sequence rotates from the bar patron to Modigliani sketching, as Morel looks over his shoulder. Later, in a poignant scene intensely reminiscent of Professor Rath in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Modigliani passes from table to table, peddling his sketches for five francs a piece to disinterested diners, as the predatory Morel hovers behind him. Unable to sell his artwork, a feverish, delusional Modigliani wanders the streets of Montparnasse, crushed in spirit. Morel has found his bargain.
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