Published originally for Close Up magazine. August 1, 2018.
A film director prepares a shot as chaotic bodies flit nervously around set. He tells us that a young woman, Maria Hadley (Tallulah Harlech) is lying half-naked on a bed, her body contorted for the gluttonous gaze of Ernst Hellman (Daniel O’Meara), the famous artist painting her in oil on canvas. Director Duncan Ward throws us in media res, in the middle of a scene from a fictional movie called Ernst Hellman’s Nudes, which is of course how Here Lies–the movie that we are watching–begins.
Ward gracefully adds his biopic to the genre of self-consciously cinephiliac cinema (à la Godard or Kaufman), with a triumphant work about the tensions between artist and muse, director and subject, financier and auteur. Most crucially, Here Lies feels like a timely indictment of the “casting couch” in the era of the #MeToo movement, a story of male manipulation and abuse of women when such conversations are urgently important.
Here Lies studies the artist Ernst Hellman who was known for an oeuvre of female nudes, as he searches for a muse to replace the one who walked out on him. Ward, who seems to feel quite at home making films about artists and the creative process—his credits include Imaginary Landscapes, a 1991 art-house film about the mystical, meditative sounds of Brian Eno, and Boogie Woogie, a 2009 film about the international art scene, named after a Piet Mondrian painting—skillfully interweaves Hellman’s story with a narrative about the director’s struggles (played by Ward himself) to make the film Ernst Hellman’s Nudes when the lead actress quits.
Here Lies centers on two men as they deceive women into becoming bodies that they can profit from; they view women as embodiments of the hysterical woman trope, and as fodder for sexual gratification. Here Lies parodies their egos. Ward’s director is so exponentially creepy that he at one point asks an actress if he can take a photograph of her—“for the artist,” which, with a pregnant pause, he ensures will be erased from his heart-drive after filming.
It’s a darkly funny yet sometimes difficult film that takes a most extreme case of misogyny to task, painting a bleak picture for women. The world of this film is so devoid of gender parity and of artistic collaboration that it seems to ask the viewer: Must we still hold onto the preciousness of male auteurs?