Les amants de Montparnasse (1958)



(director/writer: Jacques Becker; screenwriters: from the book by Georges-Michel Michel/Max Ophüls/Henri Jeanson; cinematographer: Christian Matras; editor: Marguerite Renoir; music: Paul Misraki/Georges Van Parys; cast: Gerard Philipe (Modigliani), Lilli Palmer (Beatrice), Anouk Aimee (Jeanne), Gerard Sety (Sborowsky), Lila Kedrova (Mme. Sborowsky), Lino Ventura (Morel); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ralph Baum; Continental Distributing Inc.; 1958-France/Italy-in French with English subtitles)

“A hauntingly moving portrait about the last year or so in the life of the early 20th-century painter Modigliani.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The snazzy title alludes to the misunderstood artist Amedeo Modigliani’s bohemian quarter and the year, 1919. Montparnasse 19 is an artless and clumsy biopic that is at the same time visually appealing and a hauntingly moving portrait about the last year or so in the life of the early 20th-century painter Modigliani, played with ham-fisted staginess by Gerard Philipe. It’s directed by one of the great neglected directors of the French New Wave Jacques Becker (“Le trou”) and co-scripted with Becker, from the book by Georges-Michel Michel, by the nonpareil melodramatist Max Ophuls. It makes a bold statement about the cross-purposes between serious artists and commercial art sellers.

Becker tries to get at understanding the Italian abstract painter by showing him as the hopeless derelict he became during his last days residing at the seedy Montparnasse in 1919. He is an undisciplined artist, a womanizer, an alcoholic and opium user, who is called bemusedly by his friends “Modi.” His lover, the debauched English writer Beatrice Hastings (Lilli Palmer), believes in him and uses her magazine articles to call attention to him. His kindly agent, Sborowsky (Gerard Sety), represents and befriends him despite his art being unmarketable. Though neglected by the art world Modigliani’s art professor recognizes his great talent and invites him to the academy to paint. It is in the academy that he meets a good-hearted young student named Jeanne (Anouk Aimee), who defies her wealthy parents and lives with the struggling artist despite being cut off financially by her parents. Inspired by Jeanne and the chance to work in the artistic setting of the academy his passion for his work is briefly renewed, only to be soon overshadowed by the failure of his exhibition. Morel (Lino Ventura), a successful oily art dealer, acknowledges Modigliani’s talent, but does not purchase his works or support the struggling artist. Instead he waits like a vulture for a better deal, observing that the artist can’t sell his paintings. It’s heart-wrenching to observe the broken in spirit and delusional Modigliani roaming the streets of Montparnasse while the despicable Morel is there to move in with glee on the artist’s misfortune.

What is amazing about the film is that it can’t shake the truth about Modigliani’s fall into the dark abyss, no matter how stretched out and false the melodramatics may seem. Despite the shortcomings there’s a special quality thatmakes the film essential viewing, that is if you care anything about a unique artist who appears without guile in a world that is not ready for him.