One of global cinema culture’s secret weapons, and the sweetest, subtlest movie provocateur we have in a post-Kiarostami world, Barcelonan filmmaker José Luis Guerín has had only his serene, barely seen masterpiece In the City of Sylvia (2007) to stake out his claim in this country. He’s a meta-narrative, semi-doc mad scientist, and his new film is not only both fish and fowl, but a rarefied gender provocation of a kind that could make fourth-wave feminists’ heads spin.
At the same time, The Academy of Muses is just talk — academic classroom debate and romantic discussions and couples’ quarrels, all revolving around what could be called the academization of love. The high-flying abstractions do fly. Guerín opens by subtitling the film “an educational experience,” which it probably was for him, moving to the University of Barcelona classroom of balding, aging, yet still intense classics professor Raffaele Pinto, playing a semi-savory version of himself as he does some deep reading of Dante to a classroom of mostly attentive women. Can, or should, or might love be an infinite quantity? Where are the Muses today? From there, Guerín crochets a light fabric, from the school to intimate conversations in the prof’s car to his wife at home, in which it becomes clear that A) Pinto is dedicated to a project of seducing and dallying with his students, one after the other, and B) that project is fueled by his express, literary belief in every woman’s power to become a Muse.
His wife doesn’t buy into this stuff for a second, and she smells danger; his students, a few more intense and neurotic than others, want to believe it, but their 21st-century perspectives always stir objections, particularly once they’re actually involved in the (offscreen) romances. (“You reduce everything to a problem about beauty,” he’s told.) Made up almost entirely of back-and-forth and emotional tête-à-têtes, the film almost guarantees that its Romanticism-vs.-modern-feminism arguments will spill over onto viewers’ own conversations. Meanwhile, despite his persuasive powers, Pinto hardly controls the movie’s elliptical flow — the women, all improvising as themselves, steer it with their desires (one is tortured by an email affair with a lover she’s never seen) and memories, at one point detouring to Sardinia for folk-music field research.
Guerín shoots it like a lover’s daydream, subtly manipulating reflections, focus, and exposure and sometimes getting lost in the beauty of women and sunlight. In effect, he seems to be making Pinto’s case — the intellectual necessity of passion and Muse-force, in order to compel men toward Art — while utterly enjoying the messy, unpredictable, real-world tumult the women make of it. An authentic romantic himself, Guerín is in it for the play of the debate, not because he’s concerned about conclusions. Every one of his films searches for mysteries, “real” or contrived, and then lets them be beautiful.
The Academy of Muses
Directed by José Luis Guerín
Opens September 2 Anthology Film Archives