Woman in Gold (2015): Then and Now

Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918) was an Austrian Symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Art Nouveau (Vienna Secession) movement. His major works include paintings, murals, sketches, and other art objects, but the most recognizable piece probably is the painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), commonly known as “The Woman in Gold”.

The painting measures 54″ x 54″, oil, silver and gold on canvas, a highly embellished work reflecting the elegant lady active in the Viennese art circle, patron and muse of Klimt’s, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Adele was married to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, an Austrian Jewish industrialist who commissioned Klimt to do the two portraits of his wife. It had been hanging in his home until seized by the Nazis.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Source: Wikipedia

After the war, the famous painting had been hanging in Austria’s federal art museum, the Galerie Belvedere, as a national treasure, until a near eight-year legal battle finally decided its restitution back to the hands of Adele and Ferdinand’s niece, Maria Altmann, who had escaped to the United States before the War broke out. The long legal fight to gain back the painting’s rightful ownership is the focus of this movie.

Arts looted by the Nazis have their screen time twice in the past year, first The Monuments Men, and now Woman in gold. Important subject but unfortunately both films fall short of cinematic rendering. Director Simon Curtis’s handling in Woman in Gold emits less glimmer than his previous My Week with Marilyn.

Helen Mirren delivers a fine performance as the determined yet conflicting Altmann, who, on the one hand, wants to see justice done in the restitution of her family heirloom but reluctant to re-open a traumatic chapter of her life and return to Austria for the case. She remembers her Aunt Adele well, with some endearing and awestruck moments beholding her beauty. The film handles the shifting between the past and present quite well. It is heart wrenching for a daughter to have to make a hasty escape from her home, leaving her parents behind as the Nazis take over the country.

The David and Goliath legal battle is handled by a young and inexperienced Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg. Yes, that’s the grandson of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had escaped to the U.S. in time to avoid the Holocaust, just like Altmann. In 2004, the young lawyer argues his case Republic of Austria v. Altmann in the U.S. Supreme Court, and in January, 2006, heads over to Austria to present his arguments in front of a panel for a binding arbitration. An emotional Altmann sits beside Schoenberg as they hear the decision announced by the panel of three Austrian judges ruling in their favour.

The choice of Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg looks like a miscast. Something’s missing… But then again, it could be the screenplay, maybe infusing more cinematic moments, or cutting some banal scenes and dialogues would help. Katie Holmes who plays Randol’s wife and Daniel Brühl (excellent in Rush, 2013) as a helpful journalist are incidentals. I can understand condensing the almost decade-long legal story into 109 minutes with an ending that is already known is itself a difficult feat. So all the more we need a more effective screenplay.

However, for someone who did not know about the details of this piece of art history, the movie still captured my attention. I watched it like a documentary. Not knowing the details of this legal case, I found the movie informative in taking me through the obstacles, albeit in synopsis format and simplification.

The beginning is probably one of the most appealing sequence of the whole movie, and that’s a close up on the technique the painter Klimt uses on his painting, meticulously forming a gold leaf and pasting it on his work in progress. Unfortunately, the scene is way too short to allow us to savour. This may well be the only artistic spot a viewer will get.

In a post-script text, we learn that Altmann sold “The Woman in Gold” to Ronald Lauder for $135 million in 2006, at the time the highest purchase price on record for a painting. Those living in or visiting New York City now have a chance to see the current exhibition at the Neue Galerie – opened by Lauder in 2001 – “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold”, April 2 – Sept. 7, 2015.

In August last year, Lauder, as President of the World Jewish Congress, wrote a moving op-ed for the NYT about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa. He ends with this: “The Jewish people understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent. This campaign of death must be stopped.”

It’s all about speaking out. That’s what makes this movie important. I can’t help but imagine though: what if it were Klimt who made it…

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


The Hundred-Foot Journey: A Delicious Fusion

Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallström serves us a tasty treat in the fairy-tale style of his previous, acclaimed Chocolat (2000). The underlying ingredient that spices up the story this time is more than just dainty sweets. This one is surprisingly gratifying.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is adapted from the light-hearted novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais. Oscar nominated screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, 2007) has done a marvelous job in turning the cartoonish style of a book into a robust and more complex cinematic parable, with dashes of humor and clever dialogues for added delights.

THFJ Movie Poster

The story is most relevant today in our world overwhelmed by warring differences and conflicts. It is an immigrant story. It also presents an ideal case of how cultures can coexist and harmony can be found in diversity.

The Kadam family leaves India after the tragic loss of their mother and their family restaurant in a fire caused by an angry mob. After a short stay in London, Papa (Om Puri) leads his family to settle in the picturesque village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in Southern France. The first few minutes of back story is concise and captivating.

Papa soon finds a derelict restaurant for sale. His own Maison Mumbai, the first Indian restaurant in the vicinity is subsequently opened, a seemingly arduous venture. Papa is a headstrong patriarch, undeterred by the initial protests of his sons, and the Michelin starred Le Saule Pleureur across the street. The proprietor of that haute cuisine establishment is the formidable Madam Mallory (Helen Mirren), who is determined to drive her competitor out.

On opposite sides of this one-hundred-foot wide roadway thus rage the battle of sights, sounds, and aromas, of spices and sauces, ambiance and costumes, an all-out war of clashing cultures.

Indian spices

Hassan (Manish Dayal) is the head cook of the Kadam family. He has learned the skills from his late mother; loving memories of her cooking fuel his gastronomic passion. Furthermore, Hassan is endowed with a distinct talent for the culinary art. He is most ready to explore brave new tastes.

The young sous chef across the street, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), plays no small part in Hassan’s curiosity of French cooking. The two strike up an ambivalent relationship as both friends and foes.

After Madam Mallory discovers the gift in Hassan, she offers to take him under her wings. Such a proposition is, expectedly, rejected by Papa. However, it is Hassan’s decision and passion after all. His determination soon overrides the objection from Papa.

By taking his first step to cross the great hundred-foot divide, Hassan turns the page of both parties in the cuisine conflicts. His journey ultimately leads to an additional Michelin star for Le Saule Pleureur and fame for himself. Hassan’s excelling and competing in the qualifying challenge in Paris is the bridge reconciling the two sides of the road.

It is fun to see the hostile rivals Madam Mallory and the patriarch of the Kadam family coming together. Their changed demeanor brings out the latent, better qualities of each other, offering us some nuanced performance and heart-warming scenes. I must note that there were constant, spontaneous laughs and even restrained applause in the theatre of the preview screening I was in.

Peace offering

The film itself is a smorgasbord of international talents. Acclaimed Swedish director Lasse Hallström takes the helm. English Screenwriter Steven Knight adapts a novel by Richard C. Morais, an American born in Portugal and raised in Switzerland. English star Dame Helen Mirren masters some French accented English dialogues, her previous Oscar winning role as The Queen is amusingly embedded. Papa Om Puri is a veteran Indian actor with a British OBE honor. Mandish Dayal who plays Hassan is American born of Indian descent; his love interest is the up-and-coming actress Charlotte Le Bon (also in Yves Saint Laurent, 2014), a French-Canadian from Montreal.

Director of photography Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, 2013, Swedish born BTW) entices viewers with his close-ups of fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, and market offerings. For those who may wonder, those spiked, round objects are sea urchins. The agile and well-paced sequences of food being prepared are most effective. In contrast, the wide-angle, bird’s eye views of the picturesque Southern France countryside are equally mesmerizing.

Music is an important ingredient in the film. Composed by the prolific A. R. Rahman, who won two Oscars for his work in Slumdog Millionaire, the score adds a distinguished Indian flare. With the lively Indian music juxtaposed against the backdrop of serene Southern France, the film offers viewers some interesting mixes of sights and sounds.

There are times when the editing could be tighter, scenes that need to be made clearer and more coherent, especially in the last third of the film. However, the overall production is a delicious offering. The gratifying finish serves the idea that, apart from the Michelin, home is where the ultimate star is to be found, a thought to savor and an enticement for tasting it all over again. I know I will go for a second helping.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Awards Update:

Dec. 11: Helen Mirren gets a Golden Globe nom for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical

Other Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

My book review of The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

Haute Cuisine Movie Reivew

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery