Sharing more nowadays with Ken Russell than with his own, Franco-era filmmaking self, Carlos Saura seems to be turning into a middle-class formalist, manufacturing elaborate, meta-theatrical tableaux for the purposes of putting over Spanish cultural history. Movies, as such, don’t seem to interest him any longer; they’re a means to a duller ethnic end. By the lantern light of Goya in Bordeaux, a cluttered, dreamy meditation on the iconic imagemaker’s autumn years in exile, Saura seems to have fallen into the midperiod Greenaway waxworks, and Goya’s life plays like a Broadway musical—Goya!—waiting for its book. (The paintings are even reenacted on an overlit stage à la Les Miz.) The actors—particularly Francisco Rabal as the elderly, porcine Goya—don’t interest Saura as much as the wall-shifting, scrim-lighting set design that he and DP Vittorio Storaro also used in Tango and Flamenco. (What looks like Victorian wallpaper becomes suddenly translucent when Storaro turns on one of his Crayola lights.) Once he’s filled a set with extras, Saura can’t resist panning fruitlessly over it a few times. Bordeaux itself is largely beside the point; we don’t see real sky until 90 minutes in.
It’s a study for a movie rather than the real thing. There’s certainly plenty of texture and color (Storaro bathes whole images in pomegranate red), but they’re used only to emphasize big, stilted, biographical points, which are in turn scripted with classroom-film simplicity. What, anyway, can a movie tell us about the painter that the paintings do not? The effort has done no favors for Picasso or Rivera or Bacon. At least Saura has spared us the spectacle of Goya covering himself torturously in paint, but the pictures do occasionally morph and bleed, and his writhing subjects do leap off the canvas as paint-globbed actors and breathe down his neck. What this is supposed to literalize is far from clear; Saura, like many filmmakers before him, seems to think artists live in a constant state of psychological attack by their old images. It’s hogwash, especially for someone as prolific as Goya, and visualizing it only recalls the days when Russell would try to make us see a Mahler movement.
The handful of resonant moments derive, unsurprisingly, from the paintings; Goya’s brief, private collision with a Velázquez provides the film’s only insight, and because it’s about the practical concerns of technique and excellence, it’s fascinating. But Saura would rather rouse the belfry bats. So beautifully, preciously composed and lit that soon you’re pining for a lens flare or a rogue ray of actual sunlight, Goya is almost absurdly un-Goya-esque, and naive as a schoolkid at the Met.