Review: the documentary ‘Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait’

American visual artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel has been a controversial figure in fine art circles for decades now, and Italian director Pappi Corsicato’s fawning, laudatory, and frustratingly vague documentary Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait won’t win over any detractors in the slightest. Portraying his subject as a driven, single-minded, “Capital A” Artist unmatched by his peers, Corsicato’s skin deep look into Schnabel (who also serves as a producer) and his process is so lightweight and useless that it could blow over when there isn’t even a breeze present.

Although he was raised in rural Texas, Schnabel has become a fine art superstar around the world. You’ll learn that much about him from Corsicato’s documentary if you didn’t already know it. You won’t hear hardly a word about how he has contributed to the astronomical jacking up of art prices around the world or how his prolific, sometimes scatterbrained output has damaged his reputation as of late. In fact, Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait – a misleading title as the subject and director only let viewers see what they want them to see – feels like a giant, but politely raised middle finger pointed squarely at the painter’s haters. That could have been enthralling even if Schnabel were made to seem at all human, but instead of confronting and refuting criticism, Corsicato is content following the artist to his studios around the world, doting on his every move, and offering up plenty of useless stories from friends, co-workers, and a handful of celebrity admirers.

I have no stake in any arguments for or against Schnabel, but there’s something immediately off about this documentary. Schnabel disingenuously portrays himself as the most humble figure in his life. He says that he has learned many valuable lessons over the years, but the viewer wouldn’t be able to tell that because as soon as Corsicato breeches any of these touchy subjects, Schnabel clams up and politely refuses to answer or talks around the question. The interviews with close confidants in Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait (including Willem Dafoe, Al Pacino, Laurie Anderson, Bono, and Mathieu Amalric) offer even less to latch onto. Sure, anecdotes from his daughter about doing shots of beef bouillon and vodka before going skiing can earn a chuckle or two, but why are you telling us this instead of anything substantial? It’s like watching a bunch of people talking about how much they enjoy spending time with their famous friend and then having said friend showing up to shrug and smile every few minutes.

Any sense of drama or insight has been stripped away from Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait and replaced every step of the way with coy reverence. Everyone Corsicato speaks to says that Julian has an over the top personality and a great sense of humour, but you wouldn’t know that from any of the artist’s constantly evasive, chin stroking recollections. Everyone says variations on that overused chestnut “He changed the game,” but never once illustrates how that happened. There’s an almost obscene amount of name dropping throughout Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait that doesn’t go anywhere and will only make the most cynical of art aficionados smirk. Perhaps most egregious of all, Schnabel constantly espouses that his greatest works of abstraction come from visceral reactions. Maybe if we could actually see one of those reactions or if the subject and director pressed to take this threadbare doc to a deeper level, there would actually be something here. At one point, one of Corsicato’s interviewees says “Maybe I like it because I don’t know him,” and that seems to be the talking point the filmmaker has decided to run with in this “personal portrait.”

Outside of capturing Schnabel in several candid, inconsequential moments at his studios in Brazil, Italy, and New York, there’s nothing personal about this documentary. You wouldn’t even know he was ever criticized as being anything less than a genius for the first hour of the film. Schnabel does dig slightly deeper when talking about his relationships to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Lou Reed and why his film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a personal reflection on his own faults. But these anecdotes don’t create a portrait. They’re anecdotes. Doting anecdotes are not portraits, and in trying to foist them upon viewers as something deeper is precisely the reason why Schnabel is so widely criticized in the first place.

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, August 11, 2017.

Check out the trailer for Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.