'Orson Welles: Shadows & Light' ('Orson Welles, Autopsie d'une legende'): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Welles 101

This first of two Orson Welles documentaries presented in Cannes this year, the centenary of the director's birth, was directed by Elisabeth Kapnist.

There’s a lot that can be said about Orson Welles, and this year a lot of it will be said as cinephiles around the world celebrate the centenary of the wildly talented actor-director's birth.

Unfortunately, the new documentary Orson Welles: Shadows & Light (Orson Welles, Autopsie d’une legende) won’t be one of the works that’ll contribute much to the conversation — or in any case, not much we didn't already know. Co-produced by Franco-German broadcaster Arte, this 56-minute documentary directed by biographical documentary director Elisabeth Kapnist is a primer most suitable for those who have next to no knowledge of Welles but might be curious what all the fuss is about — a Wikipedia page with some interview material and clips of movies.

The film looks at the career of Welles mostly in chronological order, from his The War of the Worlds radio broadcast that shocked the U.S. at age 23 to his career high three years later, Citizen Kane, and the parallels between Kane’s protagonist, played by the actor-director himself, and Welles’ own struggles for the rest of his career.

Three talking heads provide some on-camera commentary: film historians David Thomson and Joseph McBride, who have written extensively about Welles, and Henry Jaglom, who was a friend of the troubled filmmaker. The latter doesn’t add much to the conversation except for the observation that Welles was an artist and "you don’t tell Van Gogh to add a little blue there, either" and a brief and rather generic account of how all the studio heads asked to meet his friend but no one wanted to make a picture with him. (Citizen Kane was not a major hit, and his The Magnificent Ambersons, which was drastically reshaped without Orson’s direct involvement, subsequently flopped.)

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Thomson and McBride mostly deliver the expected soundbites about Welles’ supersized talent and up-and-down career. Thomson also dedicates a sentence or two to his theory — present in his Welles biography, Rosebud — that the supposed amorous feelings of Orson's producer, John Houseman, for the young prodigy "scared Welles" and indirectly led to his short-lived marriage to Rita Hayworth. But like in much of the film, just when something potentially interesting or even slightly off-the-beaten-(biographical)-path is mentioned, it is sooner dropped than developed, with Kapnist quickly moving on to the next high- or lowlight.

The documentary’s few highlights all come from existing archival footage, including a delicious bit of insightful and frank banter with Jeanne Moreau (who starred in three Welles films, including Chimes of Midnight) that’s mostly in French, and a short and funny snippet of Charlton Heston talking about how he got Welles hired to direct Touch of Evil, as he was originally only cast to star in the film. Indeed, one of the tragedies of Welles was that — as he explains it — he often had to “use” his “acting career cynically” to raise money for his directorial adventures.

Kapnist tries to draw her different narrative elements together by stressing that Welles' career went pretty much exclusively downhill from Citizen Kane, but this seems both rather reductive and not how the filmmaker himself saw it (his pick of his own favorite or least-flawed film might surprise those who haven't read up on their Welles).

The largely chronological approach, the tendency to briefly mention rather than actually develop interesting details and the somewhat dry academic experts that provide commentary between clips and archive interviews give the documentary an overly didactic and not very dynamic feel, despite the often jaw-dropping clips from Welles' impressive filmography. Kapnist tries to counter the flatness with some newly shot footage of random landscapes and a rambling voiceover (by Celine Salette in the French version and Sharon Mann Vallet in the English-language version), though neither of these elements are directly tied into the main narrative of this skin-deep "autopsie" — to quote the French title.

Production companies: La Compagnie des Phares et Balises, Arte France

Director: Elisabeth Kapnist

Producers: Fanny Glissant, Jean Labib

Director of photography: Thomas Bataille

Editor: Dominique Faysse

Music: Samuel Hirsch

No rating, 56 minutes

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