Eye For Film >> Movies >> Toyen (2005) Film Review
Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson
Some artist biopics try to show the trajectory of a career and a life, like Tom Of Finland, while others, including Final Portrait, home in on a specific period. Jan Nemec takes a different tack with his film about Czech surrealist artist Marie Cermínová, setting out to create a collage effect detailing the work of the painter and illustrator, who deliberately adopted the gender-neutral name Toyen and referred to himself in the masculine (though you won't find that detail here). What emerges is less a sense of travelling from A to B in a life - though the film does follow a timeline of sorts from Czechoslovakia before and during the Second World War on to exile in France - and more the feeling of a series of feelings and experiences, which Nemec suggests inspired the artist.
The importance of fragments is made clear from the outset, when immediately after the title, the subtitle "splinters of dreams" appears - a quote from Toyen. Nemec goes on to interweave more quotes from the artist, re-enactment of moments from his life (featuring Zuzana Zuzana Stivínová and Jan Budar) and writings from his friends, half-Jewish photographer and poet Jindrich Heisler (Budar), who he sheltered from the Nazis, and fellow surrealist Jindrich Stýrský.
Nemec presents us with close-ups showing pieces of Toyen's art or brings his camera dizzyingly close as it moves over the cobbled streets of Prague, where the surrealist lived before the Second World War. As we get glimpses of artwork, we are also offered shards of disconnected audio, whispers, glasses and later gunfire and the sea. The director isn't interested in the minutiae of Toyen's life but rather in the evocation of his artistic intention and inspiration. The film features a lot of artwork and finds a particular focus in his painting The Myth Of Light, which depicts the shadow of a man (posed by Heisler), holding a plant and a hand creating a shadow puppet of (possibly) a barking dog - or perhaps Nemec would have viewed it as one of his frequently referenced animals, a wolf.
The director's approach is playful and cumulative, often overlaying the re-enactment with further projected images and presenting them with dissonant audio, one moment generating a clear sense of love between Toyen and Heisler, the next creating an oppressive atmosphere of fear. He doesn't lead us through Toyen's life by the hand but by the emotion.