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Peggy Guggenheim Speaks for Herself in an Illuminating Doc

In the current noble vogue of admirable female figures in documentaries, now comes Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Guggenheim may not be news to the art world, but for the rest of us the film might stir wishful nostalgia for a breakthrough time in cultural history — check out the image of Guggenheim in an exotic dress, as photographed by Man Ray. It also offers some hints on how to meet the right people at the right time for your career. And, oh yeah, sex and how some artists were in bed.

“I was the midwife to modern art,” Guggenheim asserts. That’s a big claim, but it is verifiable that she put together the core collection of modern art for $40,000 (it’s now worth billions, according to influential gallery owner Larry Gagosian, one of several commenters in the doc). Art historian John Richardson calls her a collector of a kind that never existed before, a star.

The major interview is with Guggenheim herself. Though she died at 81 in 1979, a “live” — never eerie — Q&A is the spine for the doc as she answers questions, sometimes even correcting, in her tart and witty style, what might have been a haze of hagiography. (Her authorized biographer, Jacqueline Bograd Weld, asks the questions on interview tapes that had been thought lost until Vreeland rooted through Weld’s apartment to find them.)

Here too is a primer for using men for sex and career connections, though Guggenheim had intense feelings toward (the) many of them. Marina Abramovic, interviewed here, says, “She would take the man she wants on her own terms…so refreshing.” We learn her affair with Samuel Beckett began with a four-day tryst interrupted only by room-service calls. Of a gorgeous Max Ernst, another conquest, she says, “He had a beautiful body.” Indeed: Witness a shirtless Ernst, painting.

The filmmakers take a stab at psychobiography to explain Guggenheim’s savior impulse toward not just great art, but artists. People leave and die, but art is forever. The volatile Jackson Pollock — just one of many Peggy helped — is featured: She gave him a stipend and a loan to buy a house (and the peace to create) on Long Island. Her lifelong support of pioneer female writer Djuna Barnes is also noted.

The overall picture is of her essential vulnerability, with the most insightful probes coming from actress Mercedes Ruehl, who played her onstage, and from Guggenheim herself. She declares her own life “sad,” and we might start to understand her quest for permanence: She suffered a depressive episode as a child, and deaths — a favorite sister; a daughter who o.d.’d on barbiturates; a great love, John Holms, who succumbed during what should have been a simple operation; and a father who went down with the Titanic when she was thirteen — seem to have stalked her at every turn.

Ditching the high-bourgeois lifestyle and the suitor she was expected to marry as a member of New York’s moneyed Jewish elite, Guggenheim visited Paris in 1921 and stayed, finding her spiritual home in the café society of bohemia, soaking in Dadaism and making contact with Joyce, Pound, Stein, and a man — writer Laurence Vail — she bedded, and whose brain she picked for ideas. She eventually married him. Impressively pre-feminist, she always refused the victim stance, brushing off cavalier treatment by another lover/husband, Ernst, and even the occasionally violent Vail.

The film begins with a quickie family history: the Guggenheims and the Seligmans (the maternal side) going, in two generations, from immigrant peddler status to amassing great fortunes. Was Peggy’s ability to hustle and bargain an inherited trait? She laughs that she slept with Brancusi and that maybe this brought down the price of his Bird in Space.

At forty, she opened her Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London, boldly exhibiting Kandinsky, Dalí, Man Ray, Henry Moore, and others who were considered oddities, if not “rubbish.” The doc suggests that cubism and surrealism spoke to her own sense of strangeness. Finally settling the loaded question of who really made these picks, Guggenheim credits lists put together by Marcel Duchamp and critic Herbert Read. “Very clever of me, wasn’t it?” her voice asks. On the eve of WWII, when the Louvre refused to shelter her collection — which included Picasso and Mondrian — she got the lot (and herself and Ernst) to New York and her 57th Street gallery, Art of This Century. Here she added work from Americans Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Willem de Kooning. Here too was the very first show of only women artists, including Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, and Virginia Admiral, Robert De Niro’s mother. De Niro is a grateful commenter in the doc, and it’s a thrill to see the original programs for these exhibits.

Excepting the New York years and their jazz score, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict does not swing with the jaunty rhythm of The Eye Has to Travel, Vreeland’s 2012 doc about former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, her grandmother-in-law. And the movie loses steam in the last segment with Guggenheim’s final move to Venice and her third great museum. It concludes with her pretty much alone, saying, “I accomplished what I wanted to do and I’m very happy about that.” Still, you almost feel sorry for the “poor little rich girl,” wishing she were around to see that her visionary lockdown remains spectacularly in place.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Submarine Deluxe
Opens November 6, IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center

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Tasty Doc ‘Steak: (R)evolution’ Travels the Globe to Find a Prime Cut

And you’ve been thinking well-hung was a compliment. Turns out it’s the key to culinary perfection for steak. Because the more rapidly an animal gets draped upside down after being slaughtered, the more succulent the taste. So says Steak: (R)evolution, the doc from first-time French filmmaker Franck Ribière, himself from a cattle (the Charolais) raising family and in this film traveling the world to find the perfect steak.

Even at its overlong over two hours, Steak only gets occasionally repetitive: Thanks is due to the shaggy, red-haired bovine Highland grazers and their cute bottle-bodied Japanese counterparts with the spindly legs. By now we’re used to watching food creation from scratch, though Steak doesn’t take up the long-term effects of a solely protein-based diet, or living with and then killing your beasts. One fond owner announces that his favorite cow, Florence, had a good death and that he enjoyed eating nearly all her body parts, a bit reminiscent of the hippie era’s ideas about the efficiency of Native Americans.

Other breeders and farmers play Mozart or give massages (especially before death to relax animal muscles and create tenderness.) The doc is structured on a ranking of steaks, moving from worst to best of nine, including France, Brooklyn, and various European countries. (The French admit some humiliation when the Spanish steak proves superior.) In the mix, three women are also profiled: Scottish breeder Alison Tuke; a 22-year-old French cattle rancher, Berenice Walton; and Jody Storch, the doyenne of Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn. Yet the doc’s overwhelming star is a big old steer who toys with his master.

If your vegan stomach and ethics do flip-flops at this spectacle, pull back for the cultural comparisons. For instance, the Japanese display the fat in a store window dressing, but in France they hide it.

Steak: (R)evolution
Directed and co-written by Franck Ribière
Kino Lorber
Opens July 17 at IFC Center

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Jimmy Jazz: Ken Loach’s Latest — and Last? — Brings America to Ireland

“Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow,” declared Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

In the case of Jimmy Gralton, she took bites and spat him out a couple times. It’s tempting to say some people never learn, but, as played by Irish actor Barry Ward, Jimmy is such an idealistic and — let’s face it — good-lookin’ and charming Celtic guy that you forgive his ingenuousness.

In director Ken Loach’s latest (24th!) feature film, Gralton is star/lead, playing a historical figure deported from his homeland without trial in 1932, mainly for setting up the “Pearse-Connolly Hall” — a community center for dance, talk, and music: the Irish specialty. Using emigration and return as metaphor for Ireland, it’s the story of a land with no jobs (at times), especially during the Depression years. The film opens with archival footage of the American jazz Gralton grew to love during his first decade of living in New York, before he returned to his two “mas” — Ireland itself and his own mother, played by a hearty Aileen Henry — to help out with the farm.

Still at home is the love of his life, Oonagh (Simone Kirby), as well as entrenched priests and conservative forces, despite the years of struggle (chronicled in Loach’s 2006 Cannes winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley). The “masters and pastors,” as one character calls them, include the highly effective Father Sheridan (Jim Norton of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). Though he declaims throughout against Jimmy and especially the Americanization of music — what’s wrong with harps? he wants to know — there is a startling scene as we get to peek at him in his room, listening to an African- American singer on a gramophone. He’s sussing out what he calls the “pelvic thrusts” of jazz, and what they might add to the already potent Irish brew of dancing, talking, left-wing politics, and all down at the rural crossroads: sure dwelling spot of the Devil.

Loach is a pure spirit in the world of directing, for over 40 years sticking to his vision of the betrayal of the working class: in movies for the BBC, in docs, in features — though there are rumors this may be his last film. He and his longtime scriptwriter Paul Laverty combed Irish history to find a figure you might see as Loach’s intellectual double; maybe this accounts for some of the speechifying dialogue as various political positions are explained, jarring at times in a film of action shots and escaping out windows. But for Jimmy’s Hall we have the enlivening help of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who offers a more realistic mix of green and brown than the standard verdant Gaelic hues, sudden close-up views of black sods of earth being worked, and spontaneous-seeming outdoor dance leap-ups as kids joyously move.

Like the shot of folks on bicycles pedaling away in support of their folk hero Jimmy at the film’s conclusion, it’s real populism at work.

Jimmy’s Hall
Directed by Ken Loach
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens July 3, Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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Coming-of-Age Drama ‘A Borrowed Identity’ Builds to Stunner of a Climax

Traditional coming-of-age films like A Borrowed Identity don’t often come from Israel, which is one of the film’s points. There, youth is fast-forwarded away, especially if you’re an Arab, like gifted child Eyad (Razi Gabareen), burdened with adult tasks — cutting deals at local stores, fixing the TV antenna up on the roof. For the teen Eyad, Israeli director Eran Riklis uses the empathetic Tawfeek Barhom as the family’s hope to break in to the professional classes. Eyad’s dad (Ali Suliman) was imprisoned for protesting in his student years, dooming his chances.

But now Eyad has been accepted into a prestigious all-Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem in the late 1980s, a potential lock on a better life. Earning the respect of his classmates, though getting their giggles at mixing up his B’s and P’s, Eyad still faces dangers, including a forbidden border-crossing of the emotions in a hidden romance with a self-possessed fellow student, Naomi (Danielle Kitzis).

But the more intriguing relationship is between him and another “outsider”: student Yonatan (a wry performance by Michael Moshonov), who has muscular dystrophy. Demonstrating their shared alternative sensibility and friendship, Eyad explains who’s coming to dinner: “Mom, I brought my Jew.”

As in the director’s The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree, the tilt here is toward the underdog. Especially with its taboo-breaking stunner of a finale, political purists may balk at what might have been called Passing: For Palestinians.

A Borrowed Identity
Directed by Eran Riklis
Strand Releasing
Opens June 26, Lincoln Plaza Cinema

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In World War I Drama Testament of Youth, Alicia Vikander Is Worthy of Lillian Gish

With Testament of Youth, our collective poppy-strewn dream imagery of a decimated generation of the gallant young men of WWI — and their noble horses too — might undergo a sea change. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), simultaneously poignant and powerful as Vera Brittain, the writer who fought her way into Oxford then chucked that to go to the front as a nurse, gives another indelible performance, her tragedies foretold by the forlorn-looking women at the train station sending off their jolly soldiers.

Brittain’s bestselling autobiographical novel was never part of the U.S. women’s-studies canon; it’s a surprise to see Brittain handily handling “our” issues of career, love, family. But add the war and a triumvirate of deaths: her great love, the dashing poet Roland (Kit Harington, spirited but tortured); a would-be suitor, Victor (Colin Morgan); and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton). If the camera didn’t adore Vikander, you’d have to look away from the tragic pileup.

There are relieving flashbacks — some too lingered-on — to a green-gold, elegiac time. Ingeniously, the standard war imagery of the close combat so devastating during the “war to end all wars” is not used; instead there’s a startling, surrealistically lit scene of a human-less battleground after the battle (cinematography by Rob Hardy). And the director, James Kent, cuts to trench-trapped soldiers — like photographs from Hell.

Vera’s search for her wounded brother is edited so that you feel her panic; her turn while helping a German soldier die is worthy of a young Lillian Gish, as emotions silently fly over her face. Without the epic sweep of a Doctor Zhivago, it’s an intellectual and emotional landscape Vera traverses: grief to survival and, finally, pacifism.

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Tabloid Tale In the Name of My Daughter Is Curiously Flat

A colorful whirligig which twirls only sporadically, In the Name of My Daughter presents as a thriller about the Riviera casino wars of the 1970s, yet is front-loaded with greed, mother/daughter push-pulls, masochism, and tumbles from power. Campy courtroom testimony reveals French investigations into affairs of the heart other cultures only dream of.

Can such a film be anything other than exciting? Yes. Maybe too many chefs flattened the soufflé, which is based on a single real-life story about a suspiciously missing heiress — cut to sensationalistic French tabloids making book and a buck on the case. Catherine Deneuve is Renée Le Roux, a tyrannical but enthusiastically hands-on boss of the Palais casino, coveted by the Mafia. Director André Téchiné, in his seventh collaboration with Deneuve, goes for emotional rather than graphic violence:

The weapon of choice is the sharp serpent’s tooth of a daughter, Agnès (Adèle Haenel). When Renée refuses her daughter’s inheritance, pent-up resentments are flame-stoked by her business assistant Maurice (a charming male sociopath played by Guillaume Canet), suddenly vicious when not promoted. He keeps Agnès in thrall, and the couple orchestrate a coup against Renée.

Yet Haenel’s empathetic one-note rendering can’t balance out Deneuve’s various incarnations: a power icy platinum blonde decked out in bejeweled orange (another decade’s new black); a dignified graying old woman looking for justice.

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With Cathedrals of Culture, Wim Wenders Aspires to Capture the Souls of Buildings

Wim Wenders has been entranced with 3-D — which he calls the new language of cinema — ever since Pina, his great film tribute to Pina Bausch. He’s a man on a mission, searching for a topic that might work as well as dance (and movement). To that end, he became an executive producer for six fairly short films about architecture, and directed one himself. But in instances where visual layers are not abundant, or a building is not multifaceted or -functional, architects themselves become the films’ topics. Is this a bit of a cheat? Well, the directors’ names are stellar enough, and the buildings famous.

Cathedrals of Culture posits that buildings have a spirit, a genius loci of atmosphere attached to place. If you buy into that, it follows that they may have souls, and a voice, particularly a narrative voice, as we are in the documentary mode. Still, you might jump in your seat when a building declares, “I was born.” In the film about the Oslo Opera House, director Margreth Olin narrates in cool tones matching the snowy white exteriors: “I am a house. Without you, my echoes go
silent.” As the cameras move among backstage equipment and a troupe in rehearsal, there is a real “you are there” feeling.

3-D also works well for Karim Aïnouz’s film on the Pompidou Centre in France, which makes use of overhead beams, the museum’s connective passages, and narration by Deyan Sudjic asserting that he is the repository for the history of France, even with the “anorexic flat screens” of computers invading the museum’s library.

Least effective is Robert Redford’s paean to the Salk Institute. It offers a sense of the scientists going about their busy business in and out of cubicles, and of the slab-like blocks of the buildings themselves. Yet the only memorable use of Wenders’s new language of documentary 3-D is of plain black letters for names: hardly imaginative. And, ironically, Wenders’s own film on the Berlin Philharmonic disappoints. It’s a fantastic building, but Wenders’s emphasis is on the interior design concept by Hans Scharoun (and Scharoun himself: we see the architect’s face/image move in reverse dissolve from a wall statue). We learn that his major contribution — and one that has influenced concert halls ever since — was to place the orchestra in the middle, surrounded by seating, so that “all walks of life” can enjoy. The 3-D techniques never illuminate this; others seem familiar from Pina.

I expected to be bored by the film on the National Library of Russia, directed by Austrian Michael Glawogger. What could 3-D do for this ancient building? Yet the camera glides among the crevasses and nook-enhanced corridors where, in keeping with the Russian temperament, we’re told books hadn’t just been kept — they’d been suppressed. Shot in exceptionally dark tones — though this seems right after a while — the close-ups bring out the vibrancy of antique manuscripts, some with hand-drawn precious illustrations. You can practically hear the creak as the pages turn. Another standout is the film by Danish director Michael Madsen on the Halden Prison in Norway, the “world’s most humane prison.” The prisoners do look relatively content. Still, narrator Benedicte C. Westin plaintively complains of hearing of another world outside, but can’t imagine it. Driving this home is the 3-D-enhanced gate that draws you in, and you do feel, well, yeah, you might never get out.

Paradoxically, the real breakthroughs of Cathedrals of Culture are of narrative voice and sound: It’s nouveau to think of buildings as having personalities, even acting roles.

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A Deaf Actress’s Revelatory Performance Makes Marie’s Story a Miracle

“She climbs trees when we’re not looking,” warns a priest about the feral female lead of Marie’s Story. She hangs upside down from them, too. Based on historical figure Marie Heurtin, deaf and blind from birth, Marie’s Story is a kind of French Miracle Worker done in pale-pink feminist ideology.

Director Jean-Pierre Améris (Romantics Anonymous), who says he was inspired by the Helen Keller story, used the tale of a Gallic near-contemporary of Keller’s dropped by her family into the Larnay Institute, a teaching school for the deaf run by nuns in fin de siècle France. To play Marie today, Améris found the non-actor Ariana Rivoire at the Institute for the Deaf. And Rivoire is a revelation — showing what it’s like to be in, and then break out of, a world of total darkness and silence.

Breathtaking scenes show her twirling and experiencing snowflakes for the very first time; also flying free and high in the air on a swing. Her dining-room rampage while the sisters read Bible stories is the most exciting. Yet it’s not all a one-woman show: In The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft made the film hers by energetically teaching signing and braille to her difficult charge.

In Marie’s Story, a most ethereal instructor, Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carré), adds an updated surrogate mother-daughter love angle.

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Big-Hearted Indie Tangerines Stands Up to War by Harvesting Fruit

Small in scale if huge in heart and scope, Tangerines uses four characters to limn the religio-nationalistic hostilities unleashed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992. But what a foursome! Or, actually, make that what a one.

Tangerines‘ lead, renowned Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak, is cool-headed, even witty at times as Ivo, curtailing violence between two wounded, vengeance-driven enemies: Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Muslim Chechen mercenary for Abkhazia; and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Christian separatist on the Georgian side.

Admonishes Ivo, “No killing in this house.” Maybe he should hire on at the U.N. Other ethnic Estonians were driven off the land, but Ivo is sticking it out in his farmhouse, helping a neighbor (Elmo Nüganen) harvest his tangerine crop as they “race to pick against the coming war.”

But they have to deal with the dead and injured after a nearby firefight. With his carpentry-honed hands, Ivo nurses and cooks, despite armed trucks arriving and suddenly shattered windows — jittery juxtapositions against a gorgeously photographed countryside. Interior scenes focus theater-like on the dining room table-as-vortex: Threats and insults whip about, but, finally, so do forays of friendship.

Writer-director Zaza Urushadze’s film was this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar entry from Estonia (Ida won), though it is billed, in the spirit of the movie, as an Estonian-Georgian production. It’s a non-preachy peace declaration: Nothing is worth fighting and dying for, not even tangerines.

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3 Hearts Is a Passionate, Winning French Melodrama

A man is the lead in 3 Hearts, the melodrama from director-writer and New Wave inheritor Benoît Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen). The director has the reputation of working well with women and focusing on their issues, and the feminist in all of us has gotten used to seeing the melodrama as a female province.

So this is refreshing. And the film is so unabashed in showing the place of passion in a bourgeois world, how a missed connection can screw up a life forever, that plot implausibilities are forgiven. Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a tax inspector, oddly bumbling, even quixotic. Missing his train back to Paris, he’s stuck for the night in the tiny town of Valence, where he zeroes in on Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

Eyes “exchange” in a sudden soul-mate match-up, and the two blissfully walk the streets and talk. They plan to meet at the Tuileries Gardens, where, in near-homage to An Affair to Remember, Sylvie feels betrayed at his no-show. How can she know of Marc’s sudden heart attack? Devastated, she decamps to America. Gainsbourg — intuitive, wispily evanescent but strong — is the movie’s pulsating impulse, even off-screen.

A usually serene Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), bonded to her sister Sylvie, weeps too copiously when Sylvie goes. She does perk up after unwittingly hiring Marc for accounting help. He happens not to see the family photos lining the staircase, and they contentedly marry. But we wait with dread for the other shoe (sister) to drop (in). So what is Marc’s appeal? He’s the anti–Dominique Strauss-Kahn, tearing his heart apart at the loss of ecstasy.

A tapestry-like backdrop presents Catherine Deneuve as a soignée matriarch quietly joyful, not clashing with the main tragic if-only mood.