'My Art': Venice Review

Wolf Consultants
A clunky clatter through the convolutions of creativity.

Independent comedy-drama about a New York artist is a belated feature-film debut from prominent photographer Laurie Simmons, premiering in a sidebar at the Italian extravaganza.

Much-lauded photographer Laurie Simmons stumbles awkwardly into feature films with the portentously-titled My Art, in which Simmons herself plays a once-prominent visual artist struggling to recapture her creative mojo in late middle age. While gently feminist in its general stance, the picture somehow contrives to waste not one but four talented female performers, relegating Parker Posey, Broadway great Blair Brown, Euro-legend Barbara Sukowa and Simmons' own daughter Lena Dunham to thanklessly peripheral roles. Dunham disappears entirely from view after the opening scene, but the Girls sensation's fleeting involvement may yield a modicum of further festival play following this undeservedly high-profile Venice bow. As a commercial prospect, however, My Art will struggle to penetrate much further than the affluently hip New York milieu glimpsed in the first reel.

Early passages set in a top-end gallery and a rooftop display-area, propelled by Ben Epstein's choppy-bassy electronic score, strike a promising note. But Simmons' Ellie, who enjoyed some measure of fame thirty-plus years ago and now mainly works as an art-school tutor, soon decamps "upstate" — Cornwall, Connecticut doubling for a seductively bosky and sedate corner of the Empire State. Here she house-sits for a never-seen pal in the company of her placid pooch Bing, a charming 11-year-old Fox Terrier (played by three different canines) who copes gamely and winningly with his severe mobility issues.

Freed from big-city pressures and stimulated by the low-key luxury of her temporary surroundings (in what is in fact the Dunham-Simmons' real-life family home) Ellie buckles down to her work, which takes shape in the house's adjoining barn as a series of elaborate recreations of classic movie scenes. She starts off by reproducing a Marlene Dietrich close-up from Josef Von Sternberg's Morocco, then progresses to more complicated simulations involving her widowed gardener Frank (Robert Clohessy), his co-worker Tom (noted New York filmmaker Josh Safdie) — both of them sometime actors — and successful lawyer John (John Rothman).

Frank and Tom have romantic designs on Ellie, who responds with cautious reserve, wary of anything that shifts her focus away from the development of her craft. The exact nature or point of this work never really becomes clear, unfortunately, as its depiction on screen operates somewhere between reproduction, Ellie's own visualizations and another layer of dreamy fantasy, often with intrusively lush orchestral scores. The local restaurateur's waif-like daughter, yet another aspiring performer, seems at times to function as some kind of particularly powerful muse for the protagonist. But her function in the clunky screenplay, like so much else here, is never satisfactorily explained or resolved — it feels like some crucial element, abandoned in rewrites or lost during editing.

Simmons, who played the photographer mother of Dunham's character in the latter's breakthrough Tiny Furniture (2010), has a vast amount of experience in cutting-edge moving-image work — including a 40-minute experimental short featuring Meryl Streep, The Music of Regret (2006). But she seems entirely flummoxed when faced with the demands of a conventional-length narrative, padding out proceedings with Ellie's recreations — Some Like It Hot, The Misfits, Mr Peabody and the Mermaid, Bell Book and Candle, Badlands — apparently selected on the basis of the director's enthusiasm for the originals.

The Clockwork Orange homage is droll, with Simmons reveling in Malcolm McDowell's iconic garb, make-up and sneering voice-over, while Clohessy proves a truly eerie dead-ringer for the late Warren Clarke. But as the overlong recreations — which have an oblique connection to Simmons' photographic methods — pile up, the whiff of self-indulgence gradually becomes a miasmic stench. And how painful it is to see a work of truly painterly 35mm cinematography like Badlands traduced through this comparatively drab digital-video lens.

Fans of the transcendently acerbic Posey, one of the great comediennes of our time, will meanwhile be particularly dismayed by her insultingly underwritten two-scene role as Tom's hysterical wife Angie, decked out in a grotesquely unflattering peroxide-blonde fright-wig. Given the casting, the premise, and even the title, My Art could have played as a spiky satire puncturing art-world pretensions in the vein of John Waters' superb Pecker. All the more unfortunate that Simmons' approach should be so lacking in irony, wit and basic raison d'etre. 

Production company: My Art
Cast: Laurie Simmonds, Robert Clohessy, John Rothman, Josh Safdie, Parker Posey, Barbara Sukowa, Blair Brown
Director / Screenwriter: Laurie Simmonds
Producers: Andrew Fierberg, Laurie Simmonds
Cinematographer: Tom Richmond
Production designer: Kelly McGehee
Costume designer: Stacy Battat
Editor: Betsy Kagen
Composer: Will Epstein
Sales: UTA, Beverly Hills, California
No Rating, 86 minutes