'Foujita': Tokyo Review

FOUJITA Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival

FOUJITA Still - H 2015

An often fascinating, if flawed, biopic about the man who painted sensual nudes

Joe Odagiri portrays the colorful life of Japanese expat artist Foujita in 1920s Paris.

The life of Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita, who flourished in 1920s Paris, where he became a friend of Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse and Leger, is recounted in a flawed biopic that is as much of an East-West hybrid as Foujita was. Veteran director Kohei Oguri, who won the Grand Prix in Cannes for his 1990 film The Sting of Death, doggedly reaches for an elusive key that would unlock the artist’s two-world sensibilities. Western audiences are likely to find his re-creation of bohemian Montparnasse laughably cliched, and the Japan-set finale, beautiful but obscure, comes too late in the film, after too much tiresome froufrou. Vigorous pruning, especially around the end, could increase the appeal of this Tokyo competition entry for the art crowd.

Serious biopics are tricky to pull off, and unlike with Timothy Spall’s rousingly deep portrait of the English painter J.M.W. Turner, for instance, we don’t come away from the film feeling we thoroughly understand a great man. Yet actor Joe Odagiri (who has worked for Kore-eda and Kim Ki-duk) commands respect in the title role, perhaps his most memorable to date, and his weird appearance and cryptic dialog in broken French conjure up some of the artist’s mystique.

Odagiri, whose good looks and Gothic grunge have been likened to Johnny Depp’s, bears a strong resemblance to Foujita’s self-portrait. The painter’s nickname is Foufou, meaning foolish, though he’s anything but. Wearing round glasses and gold hoop earrings, an appalling Beatles haircut and a small Hitler mustache, our hero is instantly recognizable around town. He’s the only Asian painter, for one thing, and his impeccable taste in clothes would make Proust sit up and take note. It’s all part of his plan to make people remember him and his paintings. There is even a wax figure of him in a store window, much to his satisfaction.

Oguri has never shot outside Japan before, and his vision of gay Paris during the Roaring Twenties has an exotic, rather naive ring. Foujita paints in a barn-like ground-floor atelier. Ten years after arriving in Paris from Tokyo, his fame is already such that the neighborhood greengrocer knows who he is, and defends a large nude being carried down the street to his scandalized wife. Later, a similar painting is seen adorning the wall of a bourgeois home.

He paints women incessantly and sells everything, becoming one of the most successful artists in his circle. Surrounded by the supermodels of the day — Fernande Barrey, Lucie Badoul, Kiki the Queen of Montparnasse — he makes several his wife. The film lingers on his relationship with Lucie, whom he called Yuki (snow), warmly played by Ana Girardot (The Returned) as a restless free spirit. But more than a wife, she seems a fetish for his refined aesthetic sensibility, as when he muses how in his paintings, the "beautiful pale skin of European women" is caressed by the gaze of the viewer.

The best moments quietly detail his talent. His hand in close-up draws the exquisite outline of a girl’s face on a sheet of white paper. On a trip to a museum, he studies medieval tapestries; later he is shown crocheting a rug in Yuki’s hotel room.

At times the film abandons realism to try to capture Foujita’s artistic temperament. Other scenes strain after atmosphere, like a night Foufou and Yuki spend with their artist friends in a packed speakeasy. Kiki (a fizzy Angele Humeau)  obliges a young wannabe model who asks for some tips about breaking into the business by ordering her to strip naked on the spot (she does) and recounting a tongue-in-cheek anecdote about modeling for Utrillo. The scene is delectable but ends in an awkward bout of dancing to flapper music. The tone is off, as it is later at the "Soiree Foujita," a night of costumed merrymaking in the streets of Paris, in which Foufou wears an evening gown. All this is far less interesting than a brief glimpse of Picasso, who attends one of Foujita's exhibitions and tells Yuki she’s more beautiful than in the paintings.

The film's long closing sequence switches to Japan during World War II. Foujita has made a controversial return home and wears the Army uniform of an official Imperial artist. His new Japanese wife (Miki Nakatani), a woman near his own age, seems jealous of his past life with his models. Foujita maintains his unflappable calm, but a great change has come over his painting. His wall-size scene of wartime carnage, "Honorable Death on Attu Island," is dark and anguished. When a woman falls down in front of it, weeping, he is touched that his art can move people. This would have been a good place to end the story, but Oguri dutifully plows on through Japan losing the war and the artist’s final years constructing the Foujita Chapel in Reims, where he is buried.

Cinematographer Hiroshi Machida comes into his own in these final scenes, where the Japanese landscape assumes an ethereal, deathly beauty through rich painterly light and depth of field. Production designers Fumio Ogawa and Carlos Conti express their imaginations in Foufou’s object-laden studio, an art director’s dream.
Production companies:  K&A Kikaku, Office Kohei Oguri, Eurowide Film Production

Cast: Joe Odagiri, Miki Nakatani, Ana Girardot, Angele Humeau, Marie Kremer

Director-screenwriter: Kohei Oguri

Producers: Kazuko Inoue, Claudie Ossard, Kohei Oguri

Executive producers: Francois-Xavier DecraeneSho Hirasawa, Helen Olive

Director of photography: Hiroshi Machida

Production designers: Fumio Ogawa, Carlos Conti

Costume designers: Corinne Bruand, Olivier Beriot, Etsuko Handa

Editor: Kohei Oguri

Music: Somei Satoh 

No rating, 126 minutes