'The Price of Desire': Film Review

THE PRICE OF DESIRE still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Munro Films
Thrifty shades of Gray.

A low-budget period drama about the pioneering bisexual modernist designer Eileen Gray and her fractious relationship with architectural superstar Le Corbusier.

An hour east of glitzy Cannes, perched on a rocky slope overlooking the French Riviera, sits an iconic piece of sleek modernist architecture with a glamorously controversial past. Completed in 1929, Villa E-1027 was designed by the Irish artist turned architect Eileen Gray for her sometime lover, Jean Badovici. But it was later "vandalized" by the legendary Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, who overpainted Gray's pristine white minimalism with garish sub-Picasso murals.

After incensing Gray with his sexist egotism, Le Corbusier later tried to buy Villa E-1027 and even built his own holiday cabin right alongside it. Some cultural historians now feel he was seeking to erase her authorship altogether, a patriarchal power grab against an unsettling female rival. That is certainly the line taken by Irish writer-director Mary McGuckian in this period biopic, which dramatizes the love-hate triangle between Gray (Orla Brady), Badovici (Francesco Scianna) and Le Corbusier (Vincent Perez). On limited theatrical release in Britain and Ireland from next week, The Price of Desire aims to do for Gray what Salma Hayek's Frida did for Frida Kahlo. A noble aspiration, but sadly this house is built of very flimsy materials. Beyond students of architecture and feminist cultural theory, audience appeal will be slim.

As a defiant cultural rebel, boldly uncloseted bisexual and recently reclaimed feminist icon, Gray's story should be rich in Kahlo-style dramatic potential. Alas, McGuckian never quite unlocks it, reducing her life to a series of mannered conversations about art and design, mostly taking place in elegantly chilly modernist interiors. The performances here are bloodless, the pacing listless, the dialogue witless almost to the point of deadpan parody: "I gather there's been some dispute as to whether or not I invented the first piece of tubular steel furniture". Hardly a line guaranteed to set pulses racing, but that is about as torrid as this inert little chamber drama gets.

The Price of Desire features a capable core cast, but they are all stuck in one-note mode. Brady's Gray is a self-absorbed bore, Scianna's Badovici a preening playboy, and Perez makes Le Corbusier a priggish stage villain, even when he breaks the fourth wall to confess his own flaws directly to the audience. One of Gray's many lesbian lovers, the Parisian singer Damia, is played by rocker Alanis Morissette, who sports fabulous Princess Leia hair-swirls, but is otherwise underused (How ironic is that? OK, not very.) Another famous musician, Julian Lennon, is credited as stills photographer on the production. Intriguing ingredients, but not enough to redeem a stiff and humorless script. Crucially, McGuckian struggles to evince much sympathy for these moneyed bohemians and their largely self-created troubles.

In its favor, The Price of Desire has a cool visual aesthetic to match Gray's own. Shooting inside the newly restored Villa E-1027, McGuckian and her cinematographer Stefan Von Bjorn clothe the story in a bleached-out pastel palette suffused with Mediterranean sunshine, rendering every tableaux as artfully hazy as a high-end shampoo commercial. But all this manicured tastefulness is not always appropriate. Even when boorish Nazi occupiers shoot holes in the villa's walls, and lines of haggard wartime refugees trudge past outside, any hint of real-life horror feels stagey and sanitized. When characters die, they expire tastefully in pristine white sheets. Brian Byne's syrupy, piano-saturated score is no help, wafting intrusively across every scene like cheap perfume.

Gray's story had a happy ending. Much like Villa E-1027, her reputation survived decades of decline and neglect, only to be joyfully restored in recent years. Living to the grand age of 98, she was showered in acclaim in later life, her designs becoming lucrative mass-produced classics. One of her chairs sold for $28m in 2009, breaking the record for 20th century furniture. Le Corbusier, meanwhile, died of a heart attack while swimming in the sea within sight of his beloved but unattainable villa. Which has a macabre kind of poetry, at least.

The Price of Desire opens and closes with Gray's belated recognition as the mother of European modernism. A similar framework brackets Marco Orsini's documentary Gray Matters, which is screening with McGuckian's drama as a double bill, and tells a more nuanced version of this fabled architectural feud. Le Corbusier may have been shockingly insensitive in defacing E-1027, but the villa was closely based on designs he willingly shared with Gray, and his contentious murals even helped preserve her most famous creation for posterity. Ironically, his chauvinistic sense of entitlement ultimately boosted her legacy as a pioneering feminist artist. Gray's important story is worth telling, but with more passion and insight than this starchy biopic can muster.

Production companies: The Little Film Company, Pembridge, Munro Films
Cast: Orla Brady, Vincent Perez, Francesco Scianna, Alanis Morissette, Dominique Pinon
Director, screenwriter, producer: Mary McGuckian
Cinematographer: Stefan Von Bjorn
Editors: Mary McGuckian, Stephen O'Connell, John O'Connor, Robert O'Connor, Kant Pan
Production designer: Emma Pucci
Costume designer: Peter O'Brien
Music: Brian Byrne
No rating, 109 minutes