Paula: "Like no woman has ever painted before"
by Fabien Lemercier
- German director Christian Schwochow brings us the portrayal of an avant-garde artist and feminist fighting to create art in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century
"Let’s talk a bit about your future. You’re 24 years-old. You need a plan that isn’t too extravagant. You can either find yourself a husband and paint for pleasure if he allows it, or you can find yourself a job as a teacher or a governess. You will never be anything remarkable as an artist, and a woman can’t be a painter." The year is 1900 and we’re in Germany, but the young woman to whom this paternal speech is addressed doesn’t entirely agree with what she’s hearing, as she truly believes that she is destined to be an artist. It is her journey, based on the true life of German artist Paula Modersogn-Becker, who led the expressionist movement in her country, that Christian Schwochow traces out inPaula [+see also:
film profile], his 4th feature after November Child [+see also:
film profile] (2008), Cracks in the Shell [+see also:
film profile] (2011) and West [+see also:
film profile] (2013). Unveiled in Piazza Grande at Locarno, the film was shown in competition at the 17th Arras Film Festival, a festival which also showcased the two previous works of the director, with its section for professionals, Arras Days, having awarded Paula a development aid grant in 2013.
Played by outstanding Swiss actress Carla Juri (who was highly acclaimed in Someone Like Me [+see also:
film profile] and Wetlands [+see also:
interview: David Wnendt
film profile], and was the European Film Promotion’s Shooting Star of 2013), Paula takes her easel and brushes, packs her bags and heads to Worpswede, a colony of artists in the countryside in Lower Saxony. There she meets Clara (Roxanne Duran), another student painter, as this community is run by men, most notably the aggressive Fritz Mackensen (Nicki von Tempelhoff), who spends his time belittling Paula ("your pieces demonstrate that you lack technique", "your apple looks like a cauliflower", "you’re just a spoilt little member of the bourgeoisie, women aren’t at all creative except for when it comes to having children"). But Paula stands up to him and asserts her strong character, with joviality and a touch of eccentricity. Choosing her models from the poor living in the area, she follows her instincts without worrying about the opinions of others. And she soon garners the support of poet Rainer Maria Rilke (Joel Basman) who marries Clara, along with that of painter Otto (Albrecht Schuch), a kindly widower whom she marries.
Five years go by and Paula’s pictorial style remains completely misunderstood. Deprived of a sex life by Otto, who also criticises her work ("hands like spoons, noses like pistons and the expressions of idiots"), she heads to Paris where she catches up with Clara and Rilke. Looked after financially at a distance by her husband, in Paris she discovers the bohemian life, attends lessons at fine art school, experiences physical love, and hones her art. But Otto still loves Paula, and comes under pressure to institutionalise her, a woman who defies this world dominated by men in her own special way.
With Paula, Christian Schwochow brings us a classically made film that owes much to the energy of its lead actress, and is directed with great elegance (most notably through superb sequences in nature’s surroundings). Written by Stefan Kolditz and Stephan Suschke, the screenplay nonetheless fails to avoid the pitfalls of caricatures of the art scene and the working-class Paris of the time, and would have without a doubt benefitted from being reined in somewhat. That said, the fact remains that the trajectory and fight of Paula Modersohn-Becker to exist as an artist and have her original talent acknowledged works well on screen, and is of clear historical and feminist interest.
Produced by German company Pandora, Paula was notably co-produced by French company Alcatraz Films. The film is being sold internationally by The Match Factory, and will be released in France on 1 March 2017 by Happiness Distribution.
(Translated from French)