An art-world satire, a gentle drama of midlife crisis, an incisive study of star presence and its opposite, a re-creation and reclamation of golden-age Hollywood splendor, a low-key stoner comedy, a country idyll with a ramshackle party vibe and Lena Dunham and Parker Posey cameos, a romance so quiet that its sudden insistent erotic tug comes as a joyous surprise — well, My Art, the feature debut of filmmaker-photographer-artist Laurie Simmons, proves coherent in form and feeling despite bustling with modes and ideas and curiosities. As writer and director, Simmons sets the disparate elements dancing together rather than colliding. As a performer, wry and ever so slightly comically hesitant, she imbues each sequence with a piquant longing, a restless intelligence, a passion to create in spite of the world’s indifference that makes her character’s struggles — and also the existence of the film itself — moving. Simmons collapses the distance between protagonist and creator so winningly that the fact that you’re watching My Art seems the film’s own happy ending.
The story finds Simmons, as a sixtyish Simmons-like artist named Ellie, dashing away from New York and her teaching duties to work and relax in a more successful acquaintance’s plush country manse. There she indulges in the absent owner’s pot stash, works on a project in which she stages and shoots her own earnest versions of scenes from films like Bell, Book and Candle and Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, and tenderly cares for her terrier Bing, who has lost much of the use of his hind legs to degenerative myelopathy. Ellie’s (and Simmons’s) re-creations are loving, even fantastical. I gasped to see the Esso station from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg precisely modeled in the home she’s borrowed, complete with snowdrifts and electric lighting.
With a pair of local actors who have turned to gardening (Robert Clohessy and Josh Safdie), plus occasional other open-for-suggestion fellows, Ellie films herself as Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, restages the finale of Some Like It Hot, and larks through the countryside as the tangled triangle in Jules et Jim. These sequences play as unparodic interrogations of the original films, of their resonance, of what they mean to Ellie, of what it means to playact a Hollywood fantasy, of what vital essence radiated out of the greatest movie stars but is absent in the rest of us. That’s not to say that Simmons fails to command the screen. She has mastered an offhand naturalness that makes Ellie’s minor discomfort fascinating. And as a director, she’s adept at suggesting mood through composition, the off-kilter, the lovely, the riotous, or the unexpectedly piercing.