'My Rembrandt': Film Review

MY REMBRANDT
Courtesy of Discours Film
Sumptuous and enjoyable on several levels.
1/6/2021

Oeke Hoogendijk's doc hangs out with the few individuals who own a real Rembrandt, and some others who hope to soon.

A trip into the museum world that's far more fun than his last — a grueling, four-hour look at the troubled renovation of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum — Oeke Hoogendijk's My Rembrandt speaks with some of the very few people to whom that phrase applies. Not just directors of institutions, but, for instance, an ordinary Joe (okay, one of Europe's leading landowners) who happens to have a Rembrandt hanging over his fireplace. (And it's a great one.) The subjects are the rich old dudes you'd expect — and boy, are they white — but these are hardly the worst one-percenters to spend time with: There isn't an art-world speculator among them, and their appreciation of the master's work is contagious. Add fine photography and more than a bit of high-stakes drama to the mix, and this is among the most enjoyable art-docs of the last couple of years.

We begin at the estate of that landowner, Scotland's Duke of Buccleuch. His prize, a portrait of an older woman reading, hangs far above his head, where its brushstrokes can't even be scrutinized. You might leap to scorn him as a man who doesn't appreciate what he has. But it turns out the painting was only mounted up there after another of the family's holdings, by some guy named Leonardo, was stolen from a more accessible spot. Better safe than sorry. But that was decades ago, and presumably the Duke has a better security system now. We hang out with him in his Downton Abbey-sized manse as he contemplates refurbishing a drawing room to serve as a proper showcase for an artwork he can't help but call "she" and "her."

Over in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum's Director of Collections Taco Dibbits covets the Duke's painting. He makes friendly visits to Scotland, offering gentle advice about lighting and positioning. The Duke has no need to sell the old lady, but if he's ever in the mood to give her to the world, he'll likely remember the cultured Dibbits — who has since become the museum's general director.

That promotion surely has much to do with Dibbits' role in another acquisition. It seems Baron Eric de Rothschild needs to raise some dough to help a relative pay off his tax debts. For years, he has slept in a room with full-height Rembrandt portraits, of a husband and wife, on either side of the bed. It's time to let them go. But with an asking price of 160 million Euros, Dibbits and his boss Wim Pijbes may have to team up with the Louvre. The two museums will become frenemies as negotiations over a joint purchase evolve, whereupon Pijbes's trash-talking of French diplomacy makes for a brief highlight.

But for most viewers, the film's most interesting storyline will be that of Jan Six XI, a scion of Amsterdam aristocracy. Rembrandt painted the first Jan Six, and the family never let the portrait go; now his great-great-whatever-grandson, an art dealer, is determined to discover new works by the master that haven't been authenticated.

Over the course of the film, the youngest Jan finds not one but two works he believes the artist painted. One has had many of its figures painted over by a later (and untalented) artist; another has been attributed not to the master but to an unnamed member of his "circle." If either turns out to be authentic, Six can prove he's not just some smoothie who inherited a fortune: He's very proud of his instinct and expertise, and wants the art world to recognize it. (His glory would come at the expense of someone else's shame: Christie's auction house, which sold the latter painting to him, let it go for a mere $185,000.)

We won't spoil Six's story for anybody who doesn't keep up with news about disputed Old Masters, but suffice to say that in addition to the Antiques Roadshow aspect of this drama, we get to spend plenty of quality time with hardcore scholars — scrutinizing things like the quality of light shining through a subject's starched linen collar and the way a piece of lace curls just so. For those who find such things boring, there's also an ethics scandal, wrecked friendships and many, many millions of Euros in the balance. If the film's account of all this controversy feels rushed and incomplete, that's a perfectly acceptable trade-off for the long, quiet stretches in which close-ups of paintings remind us what all the fuss is about.

Production company: Discours Film
Distributor: Strand Releasing (Available
Wednesday, January 6, in virtual cinemas)
Director-Screenwriter: Oeke Hoogendijk
Producers: Oeke Hoogendijk, Frank van de Engel
Directors of photography: Sander Snoep, Gregor Meerman
Editor: Gys Zevenbergen
Composers: Alex Simu, Juho Nurmela

In Dutch, English and French
97 minutes