The unlikely subject of Art History makes for an intense thriller when a young researcher tries to uncover the mystery in an 18th Century painting by Watteau. Noel Megahey reviews.
9th Jameson Belfast Film Festival review
Laurent de Bartillat’s debut feature Vanishing Point (Ce que mes yeux ont vu) must surely have one of the most unlikeliest of subjects for a thriller ever – an academic puzzle over a mysterious female figure seen only from behind in a number of paintings by the early 18th century Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). You can’t really imagine that there would be a great amount of tension or action as Paris art student and researcher Lucie wades through old documents in the library, consults old maps of Paris in between her day job at a printing and stationery shop, but you’d be surprised. Why is her lecturer keeping a close eye on her? Could it be more than academic rivalry? Is there some terrible secret or code hidden in Watteau’s 1720 painting L’Enseigne de Gersaint? Could it be something that will blow the whole world of art history apart? Is anyone really going to care? Well, somehow de Bartillat does indeed succeed in keeping the viewer gripped right through to the end, even if it is just to see how he could possibly carry such a situation off.
There are several ways by which the director achieves this. First and foremost he casts Sylvie Testud as Lucie, an intriguing actress who is always worth viewing, and indeed she does bring a little bit of edge and drive to a character in a profession that evidently isn’t traditionally the most cinematically interesting for a thriller. Secondly, the de Bartillat provides a wide range of characters for her to work off, all of them in one way or another giving impetus to her quest. There’s Vincent (James Thiérrée), a young deaf-mute street performer who has taken up position in the square outside the place she works, obsessed with an underground river that once flowed through Paris. There’s her mother (Christiane Millet), an actress at the Comédie Française – which just happens to be the location and profession Lucie believes of the mystery woman in the Watteau paintings – with whom Lucie has a rather difficult relationship on account of her dead father from whom she was separated. There’s Jean Dussart (Jean-Pierre Marielle), Lucie’s professor who is keeping a close eye on her work and trying to discourage her from taking her research too far down what he claims is a blind alley. Of course, we all know it’s not…
Partly these separate characters and threads all contribute to filling out the character of Lucie and her background, but they also all suggest secrets from the past kept hidden for one reason or another. Here there are subtle clues and resonances, many of them primarily visual and connected with painting and Parisian locations – note how Lucie’s sleeping poses and her position at the window start to resemble those of the woman in the paintings – but they are more than just clever analogous connections. They are all there to make the past come alive to some extent and show that there is more to painting than mere brushstrokes on a canvas, that they are made up of real emotions, sentiments and life that has been poured into them. While the film succeeds admirably in the art history respect, managing to also keep the viewer just as gripped as of it were a more conventional thriller, it doesn’t work quite so well with Sophie’s personal life and relationships, none of which are fully developed or brought to any kind of satisfactory resolution. However the sheer ambition of imparting some sophisticated ideas on art, history and life through genre material may well be enough.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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