Thursday, February 29, 2024

French Rendez-Vous ’24: Auction

Obviously, Egon Schiele is not creating anymore paintings. In 2010, the contested ownership of the Nazi-looted “Portrait of Wally” resulted in a $19 million settlement to heirs of the rightful owners. It is therefore easy to understand why a hotshot art specialist would be excited by the prospect of finding a presumed lost Schiele painting. Finding it is one thing. Successfully auctioning it will prove to be another thing entirely in director-screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer’s Auction, which screens during this year’s Rendez-Vouswith French Cinema.

Andre Masson is ruthlessly ambitious and sometimes kind of slimy, but in his way, he is always honest (often brutally so, in fact). In contrast, his new intern Aurore seems to be a compulsive liar, but she is smart, so Masson is not quite prepared to cut her loose yet. When a lawyer in provincial Mulhouse contacts him, requesting the authentication of an apparent Schiele in the possession of her client, a young manual laborer, he assumes it must be a hoax. Nevertheless, he and his ex, Bettina (who is now essentially his best friend), make a road trip to appraise it out of courtesy. To their shock and delight, they find a genuine Schiele considered lost since WWII.

It turns out, the young factory worker and his widowed mother bought their modest house from the estate of an old Vichy-era collaborator. Rather fatefully, all the junky contents of the storage shed came with it, including the painting that Masson believes should go for well over ten million Euros if his auction house can secure the sale. To seal the deal, Masson must also negotiate with the American heirs of the original gallerist owners, who have much stronger legal standing than the mother and son in Mulhouse.

is a remarkably assured and accomplished film that could very well turn out to be one of the best of the year. It is built around a richly complex character study of Masson, who quickly proves to be a much more compelling and weirdly sympathetic figure than his initial appearance suggests. Yet, Bonitzer’s screenplay is also very definitely about something. There is real suspense in this tale of auction house intrigue, as well as a genuinely idealistic love for great art. Frankly, Auction is one of those rare films that you walk out of marveling at the sharpness of the writing.

Alex Lutz is equally terrific as Masson. It is a sly, subtle performance that radically alters the audience’s view of the auctioneer over time. Likewise, Lea Drucker and Chevillotte are consistently surprising as his unlikely confidants. Plus, Arcadi Radeff and Alain Chamfort have quietly devastating moments, as the earnest Mulhouse working stiff and the father Aurore is ashamed of/too ashamed to face.

builds up a dense tangle of fraught interpersonal relationships and tricky legal machinations, but it never loses sight the very real and significant issues surrounding the National Socialists’ systematic confiscation of great art. That is quite a feat to pull off. Consequently, this is an usually smart and emotionally resonant film. Very highly recommended, Auction screens tomorrow (3/1) and next Sunday (3/10) as part of French Rendez-Vous ’24.