This is in some ways an unusual Jacques Becker film in that it was a Max Ophüls project that he was preparing to direct before his death in 1957. Becker agreed to take on the project as a tribute to Ophüls. The inspiration for the story is said to be the novel Les Montparnos by Michel-Georges Michel, who was an artist and writer active in Paris from 1913. Both Ophüls and Becker then worked on a script. There is a rather gruesome connection between the different personalities grouped here. Becker himself would die at roughly the same age as Ophüls in 1960. The film focuses on the last few years of the life of the Italian painter Modigliani who died of tubercular meningitis in 1920. The artist is played by Gérard Philipe, one of the major French stars of post-war cinema, who himself died young in 1959 at the same age as Modigliani – 36.

Gérard Philipe and Lilli Palmer

This tragic quartet of early deaths should not detract from the qualities of the film. There is a fabulous cast with Philipe supported by Lilli Palmer and a young Anouk Aimée as the two lovers in his last few years and, in a minor but important role, Lino Ventura. The film is biographical but only covers a few years around the latter parts of the First World War in Paris, Modigliani’s move to Provence and his return. It also changes some of the details of Modigliani’s last years. It’s unclear why the film was eventuated titled Montparnasse 19. There is a suggestion that this is a reference to 1919, but we know ‘Modi’, as his friends called him, died in 1920.

We first meet Modi in a café-bar where he is sketching a young man. When it is finished the man doesn’t want it. He seems not to like it but isn’t angry and offers to pay. Modi is the one who gets angry, refusing the payment and tearing up the sketch. Modi’s friend Léopold Zborowsky or ‘Zboro'(Gérard Séty) reminds the young man that he agreed to pay for a round of food and drink for the artist and his friends. Listening in is a character with his back to the table. This is Morel, an art dealer (Lino Ventura). This opening scene perhaps offers the whole forthcoming narrative in microcosm. Modigliani demands respect for his art rather than riches. The noble Zboro tries to protect Modi’s interests and sell his paintings. Morel somehow knows Modi will die in penury and if he is the first to buy the pictures, that he’ll make a fortune. The only young woman in this scene is played by an uncredited Stéphane Audran as a girlfriend of one of the men round the table, but the women in Modi’s life are crucial. They will appear in the next few scenes in the form of the upper-class Englishwoman Beatrice (Lilli Palmer) and the young art student Jeanne (Anouk Aimée), plus the bar-owner Rosalie (Léa Padovani).

Rosalie (Léa Padovani) the bar owner tries to stop Modi grabbing the bottle at breakfast time

These three women in their different ways attempt to look after Modi’s welfare and to moderate his drinking and smoking. They don’t have much success. If you know your art history you already know the ending  of the story in that, like many artists, writers and recording artists, Modigliani became more famous and more respected after his death. So what does the film narrative hope to achieve? It certainly doesn’t attempt to visualise Modi’s style to any great extent. We don’t see too much of Gerard Philipe actually painting or drawing, only the finished products. It’s much more about the man, about the romance with Jeanne and about the Parisian ‘art scene’ at this difficult time. There have been several films about famous artists. I suspect that Van Gogh is the most frequently selected, arguably because his psychological state is represented visually in some of the paintings. The late 19th/early 20th century in France is a popular period with films on Cézanne, Lautrec and Séraphine de Senlis. In most of these films the narrative deals with the passion for art, the lengths artists go to achieve their aims and the problems they cause for lovers, family and friends and also their clashes with the art establishment. Montparnasse 19 has all of this but what marks the film out is the presentation.

Modi paints a sleeping Jeanne (Anouk Aimée), watched by Zboro (Gérard Séty). This scene is almost expressionistic with the distorted perspective of the window and walls and the bare boards in the cheap lodgings

The cinematography is by Christian Matras who had worked extensively with Ophüls. There appears to be a mix of location footage, the cramped streets of Montparnasse, a brief view of rural Provence outside Nice and its townscape but primarily it is the studio sets of cheap lodgings and bars. (There were several famous bars in Montparnasse at this time where struggling artists could pay for drinks with sketches.) A fascinating review by Darragh O’Donoghue on the Sense of Cinema site suggests that the presentation of the world as Modigliani sees it in this film is more like a horror film (and therefore distinct from Becker’s usual more realist mise en scène). He’s right, I think, that Lino Ventura is unconvincing as an art dealer (he usually played police or criminals) but believable as an ‘angel of death’. The production designer is Jean d’Eaubonne who had worked extensively with both Ophüls and Becker so it’s not surprising perhaps that the ‘feel’ of Modigliani’s world should be somewhere between the two.

Modi and Jeanne wait in a hotel room as an American businessman considers buying a painting

I enjoyed the film for several reasons and one was the casting. Lilli Palmer is always worth watching. As IMDb suggests she was a popular international star, fluent in German, English and French across over 100 films and TV shows from the 1930s to the 1980s. By contrast Anouk Aimée was at this point still early in her career and plays the young student devotedly in love with Modi. Her father was Jewish giving her a background shared by both Palmer and Ophüls (as well as Modigliani). There is a reference to the anti-semitism of France (and the anti-German feeling during the War) when the police close down Modi’s exhibition at the shop of Berthe Weil and threaten Zborowsky. Gérard Philipe’s performance is extraordinary. He was a beautiful man and a big star. I realise that I have seen very few of his films, the only one I remember is Ophüls’ La ronde. In this film he appears drunk, frail and sweaty much of the time and I was intrigued to look up his height. It was a shock to discover he was a six-footer when in several scenes he looks much shorter. But his eyes carry the passion and we know why Jeanne is so taken with him.

Morel (Lino Ventura) visits Berthe Weil (Marie Oswald)’s gallery and predicts that Modi’s paintings will only sell after his death

Overall, Montparnasse 19 is perhaps the most difficult Becker film to get a real handle on. Perhaps it is the mixed heritage of the project? It’s a film to go back to I think. I should also mention the death scene at the end of the film which carries through one aspect often commented on as a Becker trademark – the sense that we invariably see the narrative from the perspective of the central character.

Montparnasse 19 is available on DVD in the UK and on most streamers. Here’s a Spanish trailer for the film (there is no dialogue in the trailer) which gives a good sense of the potential emotive power it carries: