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Rafael E. Portas
Víctor Manuel Mendoza
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This movie, set in the 19th and 20th Century, follows the life of the german artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. It especially focuses on her most productive years in Worpswede (Germany) and Paris (France). One central topic is the discrimination of women in the world of art, while the story also follows Moderson-Beckers relationships with other artists and poets of her time, friends and family.
Being a woman has never been a matter of course, being a woman and an artist even less so, particularly when like Paula Becker, you try to impose a personal, unconventional, "un-womanly" style in a narrow-minded environment.
It therefore comes therefore as no surprise that Christian Schwochow, a director who loves women, grasped the subject and dealt with it with gusto. Remember the insecure actress of 'Die Unsichtbare' (2007) as well as the two female defectors from the GDR of 'Novemberkind' ('08) and 'Westen" ('13). To these sensitive portraits of sensitive women is now added that of Paula Mendersohn-Becker (1876-1907), a German painter and one of the most important representatives of early expressionism.
Simply entitled 'Paula', the film is quite worth seeing for several reasons, the first being its documenting the life of a major artist little known outside Germany, at least until 2016, when a significant part of her 750 paintings and 1,000 drawings was displayed at the Paris Museum of Modern Art and a biography by Marie Darrieusecq published. Let us say that with this well-made and well-written movie, a new stone is added to the edifice of her memory. Plotwise, we are invited to follow the final seven years (1900-1907) of Mendersohn-Becker's life, from the time of her reluctant studies of neo-academic art at the Worpswede colony of artists to her untimely death at age 31 nineteen days after giving birth to her daughter.
'Paula' is a biopic indeed and as such reports the events in the painter's life faithfully (or nearly so as a few facts have been changed for the sake of narration): her friendship with sculptress Clara Westhoff and poet Rilke, her long unconsummated marriage with painter Otto Mendersohn and playing stepmother to his daughter Elsbeth, her running away to Paris, having an affair there with a French drawing master, her returning to Worpswede, her painful delivery and unbearable death. But what really lifts the movie above the standard life story is Swochow's constant effort to understand and make us understand Paula's artistic approach while at the same time making an artistic object of his tribute film. The director indeed manages as well to show Paula creating her work under our eyes (she strikes the canvas, spreads the painting with her thumb, scratches it with a knife, sometimes even splits and cuts it) as to capture the beauty of the Worpswede region of flat plains, swamps and forests of birches. Kudos, in passing, to cinematographer Frank Lamm who finds cinematic equivalents to famous paintings of the time (Otto Modersohn's : 'Birches in the Moor' , Hans am Ende's 'Autumn in the Moor', etc.).
Psycholologically speaking, 'Paula' proves equally satisfying. This 'Portrait of a Lady' met with narrow-mindedness, prejudices, machismo... actually does not lack edge. All the less as Schwochow has found the actress ideal for the role, the Italian-Swiss Carla Juri. Not only is her physical appearance close enough to her model but she immerses herself in her role so intensely that she manages to replicate with stunning accuracy Paula's personality and feelings (known from the letters and journals she left behind): she can be in turns youthfully spontaneous, impish, coquettish, abandoned to love, idealistic, sweet, tough, brooding, furious, unjust...
She is well supported by a competent cast, especially by Albrecht Schuch in par with her in another complex role, that of her husband Otto, evolving throughout the story: he too is convincing in the various stages of his life with Paula; as a lover, a husband with a problem, a victim and finally an admirer of his wife's work. Also notable is the performance of Roxane Duran ('The White Ribbon') as Clara, Paula's best friend.
To make a long story short, if you have nothing against a beautiful, documented, intelligent, moving work about an engaging woman ahead of her time, do not hesitate, 'Paula' is for you.
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