Life Lessons (1989)
Martin Scorsese’s contribution to the portmanteau movie New York Stories (the other two were by Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen) is, even at 45 minutes, one of the most affable and vivid films he’s ever made. Nick Nolte is the bearish egomaniacal painter, Dobie, agonised by an obsessive need for his much younger assistant Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), herself an artist. He fetishises her in his work, assaulting his canvases with a frantic impasto while listening to loud rock music (Dylan’s live, incandescent Like a Rolling Stone). You’ll barely recall what Dobie’s daubs look like afterwards, but you won’t forget Arquette’s blissed-out expression as she watches him go for it.
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Michelangelo scholars will doubtless experience a great deal more of the former than the latter as Charlton Heston paints the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while Rex Harrison (Pope Julius II) badgers him to get the blessed thing finished — for God’s sake. (At least the principals don’t address one another as ‘Micky’ and ‘Jules’). Director Carol Reed was slumming after the glories of The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, but he does convey a suitably awesome scale, and in the exchanges between painter and pope an acerbic wit bristles.
A Portrait of the Artist as Young Failure. Menno Meyjes’s drama daringly imagines a friendship between a Jewish art dealer (John Cusack) and a near-destitute war veteran and aspiring painter named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). The film’s attempt to ‘humanise’ the 20th century’s quintessential monster caused an outcry, even before its release. It presents a tantalising ‘what-if’ scenario — had the art dealer persuaded this dynamo of undirected fury to stick at painting, Germany might never have been hauled into the abyss, and the rest of the world with it.
The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
Peter Greenaway announced his arrival with this elusive and elegant puzzle of a costume drama. Art references and connoisseurship flit through a plot in which a cocksure draughtsman (Anthony Higgins) is hired by an aristocratic lady (Janet Suzman) to do 12 drawings of her house, the payment to include hospitality and access to her bed. But the contract enfolds a con trick designed to preserve class and inheritance, playing the draughtsman — and the audience — for a dupe. Driven by Michael Nyman’s parping baroque score it displays a ravishing eye for colour and composition, and an appetite for cruelty that is colder than death.