'Belmonte': Film Review | TIFF 2018

A life in art means a lonely heart.

Uruguayan Federico Veiroj’s character study of a painter struggling to balance his life with his art is the director’s fourth film to play at TIFF.

In Belmonte, Federico Veiroj takes the hoary theme of the life/art balance and crafts it into a whole that's quiet, subtle and slightly exasperating. This melancholy story, dealing with an artist approaching middle age who's straddled between the demands of his art and those of the people around him, combines Veiroj’s engagingly fastidious and quirky directorial style — shown to its best advantage in 2011’s multiple award-winning A Useful Life — with a greater emotional range than he has so far delivered. But it’s also less playful, more austere and generally more forbidding than his previous work.

Javier Belmonte (referred to by everyone except his family by just his surname) is an artist whose paintings — to the surprise of his young daughter Celeste (Olivia Molinaro Eijo, excellent) — are mainly of naked men and speak to masculine sexual freedom. Belmonte is preparing an exhibition at a Buenos Aires gallery. On the professional side of his life, things seem fine. Early on in the film he makes a sale to a man whose wife will later offer herself to him when he delivers the painting, and typically for Veiroj, there are several such startling, low-key flashes of surrealism dotted throughout. Also somewhat surreally, his aging parents run a fur coat storage business.

On the personal side, things aren’t so good for Belmonte, largely because the artist seems utterly unprepared for the challenges brought by raising a family. On hearing that his former partner Jeanne (Jeannette Sauksteliskis) is to have a baby with her new partner, Belmonte launches into an existential crisis, again very low-key, which leads him to ask Jeanne whether he can spend more time with Celeste; Jeanne agrees, but reluctantly, wanting for her daughter a more structured life than Belmonte can supply.

Despite an idyllic island sequence set to music, and their wonderfully-captured intimacy, there’s something awkward about the scenes between Belmonte and Celeste, since the painter himself doesn’t seem quite comfortable at being alone with her. On the dramatic level, it’s in his relationship with Celeste that the perpetually tight-lipped, unsmiling Belmonte could have been made to open up a bit to allow the viewer to warm to him. But ironically there’s also the sense that he needs Celeste more than the other way around, and this is confirmed when Celeste wakes unhappily in the middle of the night and asks to be taken to her mother's place. Following this, Belmonte becomes edgier, snappier and even more isolated, occasionally having troubling visions: The film’s potent final image clearly shows on which side of the art-life divide Belmonte has finally fallen.

Veiroj’s typically elliptical script leaves unresolved psychological issues: Why have Belomote and Jeanne separated, and what it is about his character that has created his current plight? Belmonte himself doesn’t seem very interested in tackling these questions, and in the end the artist, who becomes increasingly hermetic as life increasingly threatens to take over his art, is probably not capable of answering them anyway. "I don’t want to meet anyone," he says."Why would I want to meet anyone?", which pretty much explains him. The script seems frustratingly content to present us with the consequences of Belmonte’s issues without seeking to explore them.

Presumably in the interests of achieving psychological intimacy, Veiroj prefers working with close friends: Delgado is an art director, production designer and screenwriter who’s had a hand in all three of Veiroj’s previous films. As an actor, Delgado is an attractive screen presence, who makes credible both Belmonte’s frustratingly absent air and his attractiveness, but his character’s unflinching passivity makes for dramatic frustration. Some dialogue has the fresh, natural air of improvisation, but if so, it's not particularly inspired.

Stylistically, Belmonte is very attractive indeed, full of beautifully-composed, often lengthy shots that are sometimes eye-catchingly witty: An early exchange in the fur coat freezer room between the hero and his brother Marcelo (Marcelo Fernandez Borsari) is an example. Sometimes this loveliness is extended into wonderful sequences of great artistry, such as one where his client's wife disrobes behind a Belmonte who, focused on positioning his canvas, seems totally unaware of her, or when he seduces his lover Monica (Giselle Motta) as she plays the piano.

One the one hand, Veiroj, as always, employs a classical music score (Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak and others) whose perfection and clarity of structure seem to offer aural respite from the messiness of the human emotions on display. On the other, there are vintage pop songs in a range of moods whose lyrics act as a running commentary on the action.

Production companies: Cinekdoque, Nadador Cine, Corazon Films, Ferdydurke Films
Cast: Gonzalo Delgado, Olivia Molinaro Eijo, Tomas Wahrmann
Director, screenwriter: Federico Veiroj
Producers: Federico Veiroj, Fernando Franco, Juan Jose Lopez, Sandro Halphen, Charles Barthe
Directors of photography: Analia Pollio, Arauco Hernandez Holz
Art Directors: Nicole Davrieux, Alejandro Castiglioni
Costume designer: Valentina Luque
Editors: Manuel Rilla, Fernando Franco
Sales: Meikincine Entertainment

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
75 minutes