Raúl Ruiz's ambitious but tedious "Klimt" is likely to disappoint those drawn to it if they attended the recent and much-heralded LACMA exhibit "Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings From the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer." Anyone who stood before the astonishing "Adele I" numerous times, captivated by the beauty, sensuality and bold lushness and stylization of this landmark portrait in modern art, would surely be intrigued by a film about its artist.
"Klimt" is subtitled "A fantasy based on the life of Gustav Klimt," and it's nothing if not amorphous. It opens with a time-worn device of more conventional film biographies, with Klimt (John Malkovich, the film's key strength) on his deathbed at age 55 in 1918, flooded with memories, one in particular. It seems that, while attending the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, where he received a gold medal for his work, Klimt meets none other than pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès (Gunther Gillian), who shows him a short he has shot of the dancer Lea de Castro (Saffron Burrows).
This brief glimpse of Castro shows her as an exotic vamp in the Theda Bara mold (but much less voluptuous). Klimt is transfixed and is eventually summoned to paint her both dressed and nude -- while her lover, a kinky duke, observes all behind a one-way mirror. But is Lea really Lea or is Klimt encountering merely her double? Ruiz doesn't give much reason to care one way or another about this -- or about many other aspects of his film as well.
Ruiz is terrific in evoking a heady atmosphere of ornate fin de siecle decadence, and Malkovich is ideally cast as a coolly intellectual, free-thinking, free-living aesthete whose endless pursuit of beautiful women parallels his brilliant experimentation in the pursuit of artistic perfection. The film unfortunately is crammed with garrulous bores engaged in all manner of frivolous debates and intrigues. No doubt Klimt's professional and personal iconoclasm -- he is said to have fathered approximately 30 children -- would make him a target of tongue-waggers, but the film makes one wonder why he would spend so much time in their company at fancy soirees and cafes.
"Klimt" comes alive only fitfully at best, and it seems that for those occasional moments when it comes into focus there is an equal number that are merely silly. With his amusing flair for the insinuating and the enigmatic, Malkovich is far more effective than this hazy film, which is being released in its "English language version," always an ominous description. Malkovich's Klimt deserves better than this.
"Klimt." Unrated. Suggestive adult situations. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. At the Landmark NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 281-8223; and Laemmle's One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley (Union at Fair Oaks), (626) 744-1224.