Opens Fri., April 23
When Thierry Guetta finally put together the hours upon hours of footage he’d shot of famous street artists, the results were called “ too artistic.” Aptly named Life Remote Control , it was described by infamous graffiti artist Banksy as “90 minutes of someone with ADD rapidly flipping through channels.”
Banksy seized control of the project, and the new film, Exit Through the Gift Shop , is not “too artistic.” That is, it’s not the aesthetic equivalent of a Banksy piece (say, his satirical, moving vandalism of Israel’s West Bank barrier). A sprightly, smart and very entertaining documentary, it takes a traditional expository approach, telling the very strange tale of Guetta in a straightforward, albeit far from shallow, way. That’s not a complaint.
It certainly seems like it shouldn’t be this coherent. The film started out belonging to Guetta, an excitable Frenchman who ran a successful vintage clothing store in L.A. Unable to live without a video camera in his hand and bewitched by the street art movement, he began hanging with and shooting the likes of the Atari-obsessed Invader, Obama “HOPE” poster creator Shepard Fairey and eventually Banksy.
When control of the film shifts hands, Guetta morphs from documentarian to subject, reinventing himself as “Mr. Brainwash,” an artist as derivative as he is successful. Brazenly stealing from all those he’s been filming (spliced with Andy Warhol), he debuts his striking but empty works—Elvis wielding a toy gun or a giant spray can with a Campbell Soup label—not on the streets but in a breathlessly hyped mega-art show.
So, Exit is a hit piece, then? Surprisingly, no. Tempting as it is to write Guetta off as a vacuous, hacky poseur, the most stereotypical tendencies of the art scene in one hairy, spastic Eurotrash fool, he remains a lovable spastic Eurotrash fool. Besides, one could lodge at least some of the same charges of the other, admittedly more talented street artists. Even Banksy, whose work is genuinely thought-provoking, could be accused of being overly concerned with hype and image. His maintaining of his anonymity at this point in his career is as much to do with mystique as deflecting the police. (When he appears on-screen, he wears a cavernous hoodie and disguises his voice.)
Exit Through the Gift Shop has genuine beef with the art scene, and how every movement inevitably betrays its punkish origins. But it also respects it, sending it up without sinking into the bitter, hollow cynicism of such art world satires as Art School Confidential or (Untitled) . That’s a rarity and a relief.
Review by Matt Prigge
Opens Fri., April 23
Empathy, they say, is the cornerstone of art. By that credo, few films have been more “artistic” than The Girl on the Train . Though it doesn’t officially announce it, the latest from André Téchiné (Wild Reeds, Ma Saison Préferée) is inspired by the strange case of Marie-Leonie Leblanc, a young woman who, in 2004, caused a national freakout when she told police she had been verbally and physically assaulted by six Arab youths who mistook her for Jewish. Four days later, she confessed to making it up.
There are many ways Téchiné, along with writers Odile Barski and Jean-Marie Bessett (who had already adapted it into a play), could attack this too-true tale of moral vacuity. They could make like Stuart Gordon’s Stuck , which turned a more horrible story—a woman ran over a man with her car, embedding him in the windshield and let him slowly bleed to death—into hilariously bleak comedy. Instead it goes the opposite direction, searching with great patience for humanity, striving—ultimately in vain—to understand.
The incident itself doesn’t even occur till more than halfway through the film, the first hour showing the events that led to the fantastical accusation. Turns out she had boy problems: a rootless young twentysomething, living with mom (Catherine Deneuve) and half-assed with her job search, Leblanc—renamed Jeanne and played by Émilie Dequenne—got entangled with intense Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle). The need to provide for her drives him into the drug trade, with disastrous results, leaving Jeanne alone, depressed and desperate. (Real life wasn’t so lurid: Leblanc simply wanted more attention from her boyfriend.)
Even with so much preamble, Jeanne’s decision to feign an anti- semitic attack remains vague and nonsensical. Dequenne, best known for her award-devouring, coldblooded turn in the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta , is called on to be bright, bubbly and, eventually, tortured; she doesn’t seem like the kind of one-dimensional monster who would insensitively prey on racial tensions.
But the film is not after The Truth but truth. Its purpose isn’t to answer why Jeanne did what she did but to grant her (plus the other, very well-drawn characters) the gift of complexity. Even so, The Girl on the Train is the same as most Téchiné films: relentlessly absorbing but unfocused in both good ways and bad. His messiness results in under-realized elements, like the occasional cutaways to an upscale Jewish family that serve as a too loose counterpoint to the main plot. But it also produces moments and ideas that couldn’t be found any other way.
Not only was he eaten by a bear, but amateur environmentalist Timothy Treadwell had the footage of his many Alaskan trips edited by Werner Herzog, who really couldn’t resist making mincemeat of Treadwell’s fuzzily anthropomorphic view of nature.
Empathy, they say, is the cornerstone of art. By that credo, few films have been more “artistic” than The Girl on the Train.