The Academy of Muses (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler

Mireia (Mireia Iniesta) faces Rosa (Rosa Delor Muns) in José Luis Guerín's The Academy of the Muses. All images courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

The Catalan director José Luis Guerín’s films are based on extraordinarily beautiful images paired with simple—even banal—ideas. This description holds true for his most recent completed film, The Academy of Muses (2015), which is receiving its U.S. theatrical release following its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival last year. It also holds true for his previous films, which will screen at New York’s Anthology Film Archives in late August 2016 within a retrospective accompanying this run. Innisfree (1990), for instance, visits the titular Irish village where John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) was shot and interlaces sequences from the older film with interviews with the place’s current-day residents, calmly showing the impact of Hollywood upon their personal histories. Train of Shadows (1997) reconstructs fragments of a lost silent-era film made by a man who died the day of its shoot, offering both a direct representation of and a metaphor for cinema’s ability to revive the past. 

Guerín’s best-known film, In the City of Sylvia (2008), and its companion work, Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007), jointly recollect a journey taken by a man to Strasbourg to look for a woman encountered there years earlier. The earlier film relies on black-and-white still photographs taken by the filmmaker, who narrates his own story; the later color film casts actors to fill in for Guerín and the woman and uses the structure of a languid chase film to bring his pursuit of her to life. 

Mireia lays beside a partner. Although the film's participants appear under their real names, their onscreen gatherings and relationships have all been staged and largely improvised for Guerín’s camera.

An opening title describes the film as “An educational experience with Professor Raffaele Pinto, filmed by José Luis Guerín.” The work’s grounding encounters take place in a seminar room of the Philology Department at the University of Barcelona, where discussions are led by Pinto, a real-life Italian philology professor. His discipline is the study of historical developments in language and human thought, and he proceeds to use Dante Alighieri’s writings with his largely female student body to illustrate his ideas. The love of Dante for Beatrice, he argues, finds corollaries in the passion between the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, themselves inspired to adulterous passion by reading a tale of the forbidden romance between Lancelot and Guinevere. With increasingly seductive tones, Pinto argues love to be an ideal formed by human beings over the course of centuries—not only by male poets that envision their female beloveds as inspiring muses but also by women that actively cast themselves in the roles. 

To this end, he proposes a modern-day “Academy of Muses,” in which the women before him will test whether ancient notions of passion are still relevant today. His gambit can be seen validly as a lurid chauvinist ploy, with some of the students encouraged to test their powers upon him (“I fall in love within a teaching relationship,” he later justifies). Yet it also leads to many marvelous moments in which bilingual academic debates spill out beyond the walls of the classroom and breathe vibrantly in physical form, beginning with the visages of the muses themselves.  

Emanuela Forgetta plays Emanuela, one of Pinto's students.

Academy emerges from a fictionalizing premise. Although Pinto and the seminar’s participants appear under their real names, their onscreen gatherings and relationships have all been staged and largely improvised for Guerín’s camera, mirroring the idea of love as a fiction that brings people together. This idea is articulated most forcefully by Pinto’s Spanish wife Rosa (played by Rosa Delor Muns), who argues with him when they are alone that artists have done harm by creating the concept of love. One could easily find flaws in her argument. After all, if poets espouse love, and poets are human, might not that espousal be an articulation of a real human sentiment, and more than a mere seduction tool? Yet one cannot argue with the forcefulness of her delivery, as Guerín, positioned outside the couple’s tree-covered window, shows the man seated comfortably in a chair holding sway over his hypocrisy, while the woman stands with her head down, arguing bitterly with all her might.

In her battle to keep her husband, we see that Rosa has much to argue against. Two of the academy’s muses come to stand out to her eyes, to the professor’s, and to ours. The blonde-haired, slight Mireia (Mireia Iniesta) has found herself stimulated by an online-only relationship with a man and seeks to understand whether she can love someone through words alone. At one point, she travels to a museum in Naples and wanders amidst a hall of white marble statues, as though seeking advice from ancestors (with echoes of Rossellini at work). The more voluptuous, darker Emanuela (Emanuela Forgetta), in comparison, tries to perceive her own mind and heart through more sensorial immersion. We watch as she, inspired by debate with her university peers, travels to Sardinia with recording equipment in hand and stands in a field amidst a flock of sheep as a farmer recites earthy love poetry. (Is Rossellini here again?)

Mireia Iniesta plays the blonde-haired, slight Mireia, one of the academy's muses.

Throughout, Guerín’s camera fixates largely upon an essential aspect of cinema: human faces. Not a single kiss is exchanged onscreen, with the passion instead lying in the efforts people make to mentally maneuver between their feelings and the rationalizations thereof. A common visual strategy that Guerín adopts as they do so is shooting through glass surfaces. When Rosa argues with Raffaele, for instance, or when the professor furtively meets a younger muse, we see not only the performers, but also the outside world layered over them through windows. In such moments, the filmmaker announces his presence as someone distant from the action, respecting the privacy of the encounters contained within his frame. He and the lovers before him work together to create the semblance of secret worlds.

Guerín himself has said, in an interview with Film Comment about Academy, that he believes that, “Documentary is always about the public space.” If so, then fiction might be about the private space created in moments such as these and others. For instance, it additionally sometimes happens when people are speaking in Academy that the film’s imagery will cut to black and then return several seconds later, without a break in the conversation. Although no seeming change has occurred with the characters, the film has opened up a space for us as spectators to fictionalize the action by internalizing its discourse and making it part of our own imaginings. 

The film’s organically emerging narrative ultimately deals with the conflicts waged between Rosa and other women for her husband’s attention. That narrative is best experienced as a series of brilliant, fragmented shards, in keeping with the fragmented nature of human thought. Among the most incandescent are brief instances when the muses fuse complicity with Guerín and inspire his imagination as well as ours. “The task of poetry is to bring light into the world,” we are told at one point in the film. “Unfortunately, without the muses, poetry becomes solipsistic madness.” 

Rosa Delor Muns plays the professor's wife, Rosa.

In seeming illustration, beauty comes to act as an organizing principle. The garrulous tedium of the classroom space, in which Mireia appears as simply one figure among many, eventually vanishes in favor of a shot of her posed alone and soulfully in the surroundings of Dante’s privileged Lake Averno, an instance that she has seemingly conjured up in the wake of all the preceding talk. At another point, Patricia (Patricia Gil) narrates the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne to a young girl, and her excited relaying of a tale of transformation and pursuit leads the camera to briefly, breathlessly dance among trees before returning to earth. 

Academy’s climax is a café encounter between two possessive women over a man, with both coming to understand that they can each—if they wish—continue to own a part of him in their minds. The closing credits, coming soon afterward, reveal the film’s performers in a way that suggests the possibility of their all continuing to stay with us. Desire, after all, is internal and personal, and can last for as long as memory can. The film’s staged explorations of literature’s effect on the psyche are ultimately revealing of the force held on the psyche by cinema, a medium with the power to preserve people as we once knew and possibly treasured them.

Aaron Cutler is a film critic and programmer who keeps a Website, The Moviegoer.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 4