Berlin 2013: ‘Shirley: Visions of Reality’ review


In Austrian video artist Gustav Deutsch’s Shirley: Visions of Reality (2013), pictures literally speak for themselves, with this experimental film using prominent US painter Edward Hopper’s calculated renderings of American society to tell the story of a fictional actress – a prime example of art imitating art. Recreated through the guise of thirteen of Hopper’s best known paintings, Deutsch has create a series of vivid snapshots which thread together into a fascinating synthesis of art and film. What we get is a unique presentation of an aspiring actress, whose trials and tribulations paint their own portrait of American history.

Each of these paintings has been painstakingly recreated, like a series of exquisite dioramas depicting the values of American life throughout the median point of the 20th century. Through the monologues and voiceovers of Shirley (Stephanie Cumming), we’re given a glimpse of life in United States throughout the Great Depression, the Second World War and the African American Civil Rights Movement. Introduced by a radio newscaster’s reports that supplement these rigid scenes with a sense of historical relevance, this theatrical tapestry covers 32 years of history, with every one of these elegant vignettes set on the same day of the year each painting was created.

A textured animation of life, Deutsch’s Shirley is a film of such aesthetic beauty that one could be forgiven for dismissing its narrative entirely, in order to solely become immersed in this rich simulation of Hopper’s sparse, yet enrapturing oil paintings. Successfully imitating the sharp vivid lines and bold prominent colours of Hopper’s work, Deutsch and director of photography Jerzy Palacz have managed to calibrate the distinct lighting and minimalist composition of the original paintings and fashion a world which seems entombed in history. Combine these lush visuals with a darkly ethereal score and you have a film that paints a dreamlike reverberation of recent history – echoing with an equal mix of hope and despondency.

However, as a film, Shirley fails to wholly engage its audience. This is primarily due to its protagonist’s narrative arc being as flat and as the horizon. The enjoyment of art is often obtained by deconstructing the image for yourself, and through a flurry of imagination creating your own stories and characters from the visual building blocks you’re presented with. By removing this element, the film is in constant danger of alienating its audience. Yet, somehow (perhaps due to the fractured narrative of Shirley’s story), there remains enough ambiguity in these scenes for you to connect the dots that connect her life for yourself.

Add in some jarringly conceited and ostentatious soliloquies and the ill-fitting addition of some morose folk numbers by David Sylvian, and you have a feature that’s hard to love as anything other than an example of high concept post-modernism. Destined to play further festivals and gallery installations, Shirley: Visions of Reality is an aesthetically innovative piece of modern art. Yet, as a film, it fails to become anything other that an example of experimental cinema pushed close to its nadir.

The 2013 Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. For more of our Berlinale coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble