Tuesday 14 July 2020

Art house: "Villa Empain"

There would be an argument for boning up on the subject of Katharina Kastner's short film Villa Empain before sitting down with it. True, we get some of the basics in the form of onscreen captions at the very end of these 25 minutes: that this was the Art Deco mansion designed by the Swiss architect Michel Polak for the Belgian entrepreneur Louis Empain; that, only three years after moving in, Empain declared it was impossible to live in a place that was so obviously a work of art and so handed keys and deeds over to the Belgian state for use as a museum. Yet we're offered very little of that context from the body of Kastner's jewel-like film itself, which instead provides an idiosyncratic tour of a sunsoaked property we know very little about. Idiosyncratic, in that it first appears to be proceeding square inch by square inch, cinematographer Ivo Nelis lingering on small but seemingly representative details of the carpet, the marbled walls, the leaves in the water in the swimming pool out back. Occasionally, Kastner will insert a black-and-white photograph that gestures towards some idea of lineage, the building's heritage as a magnet for the leisured class (no matter that it repulsed Empain so); occasionally, we glimpse actual, flesh-and-blood people, like the artist tracing the building's tiles, cueing detailed close-ups of her pencil marks. The danger is that the film is getting lost in texture; that we can't see the trees for the knots in the wood. (Some mystery persists, for one, over Kastner's inserts of coastal scenes, given that the Villa is firmly landlocked in downtown Brussels. Or are these cliffs where Polak sourced the rock for the house's characterful stone features?)

The saving grace is that this is a fascinating place to spend any length of time in; when that camera finally pulls back, there is something that grabs, caresses and in some cases ravishes the eye wherever one might look. (No wonder Baron Empain moved out: it must have been hard to focus, let alone get much done.) Some of this is manmade, like the world's most needlessly extravagant bedside clock: an artefact that speaks to what it must be to have time on your hands to create or marvel at such beauty, yes, but also to the Villa as a place where time seems to have stopped, leaving behind the ghostliest of Guggenheims. Some of what we goggle at is nature's doing, and Polak does seem to have envisioned the Villa as a place where the manmade and the natural co-exist, where each element holds the other up to catch the light. That's why Kastner opens with an especially oblique prologue involving a crab scuttling round inside a tank, revealed in the film's closing moments to be one of the exhibits in the Villa's galleries. (And there would be another argument here: that these exhibits, which included Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" at the time of filming, are really only gilding the lily. You could put any number of masterpieces in this space, and they might still pale in comparison to the space itself.) At barely half an hour, it's a whirlwind tour, but it's one that will do the Empain Foundation - shortly to witness a colossal uptick in visitor numbers - no harm whatsoever; for anyone with an interest in architecture on film, this could well be the release of the week/summer/year.

Villa Empain will be available to stream from tomorrow via MUBI UK.

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