Art Travelling: films about Art

Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe, dir. Ondi Timoner (film still)

Here at Camerimage film festival. Yesterday I saw Valley of the Gods by artist- filmmaker Lech Majewski, which I’ll review later.

I just saw the Mapplethorpe biopic directed by Ondi Timoner which is BRILLIANT. Really does the subject justice. Matt Smith is a revelation. As the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe I didn’t realise it was Matt Smith in the role, and I was wondering who the actor was, thinking he looks a little bit like Matt Smith.

The film demonstrates in a fascinating way how Mapplethorpe made his photographs, many of which are featured in the film. They are exquisite and still have the power to shock, with their raw sexuality combined with the fine gloss of surface perfection.

The film brings scuzzy 1970s New York to life particularly as it shifts to 1980s Glitz, as Mapplethorpe refines his style and his lifestyle becomes more lavish, though perhaps more empty. The film does not shy away from portraying Mapplethorpe as a difficult and complicated guy. His relationship with Black lovers and his use of them as subjects is shown as problematic, which it is.

Interpolation of old footage from New York streets as well as his photographs of friends and subjects give the film a deep sense of authenticity but never over plays the “tortured artist” motif.

If there was one thing I hoped to see in the film however it was a recreation of the film shoot which created the iconic Patti Smith portrait on her album cover Horses. However the film doesn’t depict that and the Patti character disappears from most of the film once the couple break up, though according to Smith’s autobiography, “Just Kids” the two remained close.

Mapplethorpe is a glorious film, a terrific example of a biopic done right, without hagiography or overdramatisation. Timoner’s judgement is acute and, I think, exemplary.