Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 14, 2024 10:36 am 
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Discovery of a long lost Egon Schiele painting leads to excitement

In Auction/Le tableau volé,an appraiser of the French Hôtel Drouot auction house, André Masson (Alex Lutz), gets the information that a factory worker in Mullhouse who lives with his widowed mother has come across what he thinks is a lost painting by Egon Schiele last recorded in 1939, when it was seized from its Jewish collector by Nazi officials.

It's the sharp dialogue and the testy personal relations that keep us watching, though, and make this not only an art thriller but a study in human nature. Masson is at the center, and beside him his odd new assistant Aurore (Louise Chevillotte), who may not have Bruce Chatwin's famous "eye" but is devious, a liar, and has up her sleeve some very ingenious high level techniques of gaming the auction system. One of the concrete "actions" of the early scenes is her finding a handsome, stylish fur and leather short coat for herself for 150 euros on sale in the house. It would be worth more like 20 thousand, but fur is dead on the market, and the dealer who has a bid on it is cheap. Thus the skillful Bonitzer, who wrote for Jacques Rivette and for Cahiers du Cinéma, knows how to weave sophistication and status consciousness into writing about a world that can't be brought to life without them.

Masson reveals to the trainee that despite his glamorous car and box full of luxury watches, he, like her, like the new possessor of the Egon Schiele, comes from the sticks.

Masson has a cordial relationship with his ex-wife (Léa Drucker), who's been ex- for a decade. Something makes Masson and his ex-wife think this supposed Egon Schiele is worth a trip to Mulhouse, and since he still loves collectible cars, she suspects he'll enjoy the quite marvelous museum of those there, of which we get a tempting glimpse.

When they see the painting, they immediately know it's authentic. This moment vies with the moment of the auction sale for focusing the greatest excitement that the search for lost art treasures can bring.

A cornerstone of the tale is the boyish, sensitive young factory worker (Arcadi Radeff), who is thirty going on nineteen. The discovery of the painting brings about immediate trouble with his potes, his buddies, with one of whom he gets into an intense physical struggle after the other guy wants to turn over the painting and see the back. A charm of the latter part of the film is seeing the young man, who has refused to put on a tie for the auction house people's visit, go with his provincial lawyer representative (Nora Hamzawi), and be put up by Hôtel Drouot at a large, posh hotel with a view almost on top of the Eiffel Tower, to attend the auction dressed in a well cut suit. He disappears for a while thereafter, wandering off, and is found hunched on the paving, crying. Later, members of the Jewish family of the original owners gather and applaud the boy and shake his hand. Rich now, he buys his mother a new house but returns to his factory job and his potes.

But before this can happen there is an obstacle to the brisk 25 million euro auction sale: the wealthy representative of the now American Jewish family of the original collector is manipulated by his French lawyer into vastly underestimating the value of the painting and deciding on selling it for cheap. He has to be skillfully blocked from doing this. This is where Masson's dicey assistant Aurore comes in, with an ingenious ploy to save the painting for auction and bring it in closer to its real value.

It's all wonderfully tricky and fascinating, and a Variety preview explains Bonitzer had originally envisioned this as a TV series: there's so much material one can see why. On the other hand, this makes an unusually layered feature, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again. The relationship between Masson and Aurore prickles and sparkles throughout the film. Before she comes to a drunk and hopeless Masson, five "single malts" to the wind, gives him a script to address the American Jewish collector representative and change his mind about a cheap sale, she has already become so angry and insulted by Masson she has quit and walked out. But a lost Egon Schiele is the kind of thing that makes personal issues dwindle.

A bit of conventionality in the writing comes with the usual overhead plotting. Right after the auction conducted by Masson in which the painting has sold for 25 million euros (possibly too little, given that Klimt's The Kiss went for 135 mil) Masson's boss (Francis Vierville) has edged out the company's chairman and now puts him in his place, thus shuffling Masson to a desk job away from the excitement and suggesting he too may be soon offed, so he decides to go out on his own.

I'm not sure all the details make sense, or that I understand fully how profits of the auction are divided up. I've mentioned the likelihood that the auction sale price is too low. It also seems, though it's not clear perhaps, that the sale has been scheduled too soon. Masson has mentioned the need to prime the market early on.

In the end none of these questions detract from what a very sharp, exciting, and entertaining film this is.

Auction/Le tableau volé, ]91 mins., has its French release May 1, 2024. No other information. Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York (Feb. 29-Mar. 10, 2024. Showtimes:
Friday, March 1 at 9:00pm (Q&A with Pascal Bonitzer)
Sunday, March 10 at 6:30pm

OPENED MAY 1, 2024 in Paris (AlloCiné press rating 3.5 (70%); spectators 3.7 (74%).

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