Seldom has the idea of a film as a series of tableaux been so literally appropriate as in the latest work from Austrian filmmaker and artist Gustav Deutsch. Shirley – Visions of Reality is a look at the US from the 1930s to the 1960s as seen through a series of micro-stories set in and inspired by paintings by American realist artist Edward Hopper, painstakingly reproduced and reconstructed in a film studio as life-size sets. Each of 13 paintings is used as the setting for moments in the life of a fictional actress, Shirley (Stephanie Cumming), as she moves through life, houses, trips, situations, and milestones of world history taking place in the exact year of creation of each original painting.
The “blowing-up” of Hopper’s art into real rooms and furniture becomes a sort of conjuring trick, allowing Shirley to exist within them without betraying the original quality of the work, but suggesting the whole frame as a still-life of specific moments in the “American century”. Mr. Deutsch is working strictly within the realm of fiction inspired by each of the paintings’ meticulously recreated sets, but he does so within a clear, precise historical context feeding as much on actual events as on the mythical images of the United States art and film have imprinted on European viewers over the years. In doing so, Shirley – Visions of Reality becomes a strikingly “endless loop”, both highly formal and tenderly emotional, where the “American dream” and the reality of past history cross paths, collide, mesh, entangle. That, among the theoretical construct of the film’s continuous dialogue between art and life, Shirley manages to exist as a character with an inner life and a recognisable presence is much thanks to the excellent work of Ms. Cumming, a Canadian dancer and choreographer based in Vienna; conveyed mostly by presence and movement alone (most of the dialogue is spoken in voiceover), it is as if Ms. Cumming is performing a delicate choreography negotiated within the tight constraints demanded by the film’s device.
For his part, Mr. Deutsch creates, more than just a film, a mood, a tone whose constant (very American) striving towards hope and better days ahead is tempered by reality’s continuous insistence that it can’t always fulfill that endless optimism. In doing so, the film becomes a lovely meditation on the passing of time and on our relation with the world that surrounds us, bringing to life Mr. Hopper’s classic paintings with an attention to detail and colour that reminds you of what these works have meant throughout the years and of their importance in the creation of an image for the American dream.
There are two audio tracks. English (original one) and French (dub). French subtitles are for English audio track.