The Jean-François Laguionie film "The Painting" is nothing short of a masterpiece, at least visually.
The story may be a little transparent, but it hardly matters when the film’s look is so endlessly, instantly and continually absorbing and exciting. Originally released in 2011 in France under the title "Le Tableau," this film is a story of social stratification and theologically justified mass violence, dressed up -- as are all fairy tales -- in the garb of the fantastical.
Within the canvas of a long-absent Painter live a number of figures, some of them fully completed (the "all dones"), some of them not quite finished (the "halfies"), and some of them nothing more than doodles (the "sketchies").
Declaring themselves the most beautiful, and therefore the Painters’ favorites and the natural rulers of their entire world, the all dones set about instituting a systematic repression and enslavement of the halfies and the sketchies -- the former a caste exiled to the garden around the magnificent castle where the elites live, and the latter a despised, almost invisible minority who are persecuted, tormented, and even murdered without consequence.
It’s a rather clever comment not only on prejudice, but on the nature of religious rationalizations of oppression: In our world, of course, "God is dead" is the cry of those who pursue freedom (or, if you see it that way, license), whereas faith-based oppression is the purview of the devout. In the confines of this particular canvas, it’s the similar message that God is irretrievably absent, and not the threat of his angry watchfulness, that fuels monstrosities by the ruling elite against everyone deemed to be "inferior."
There’s nothing subtle about the story, and neither is there anything subtle about the film’s computer-finished animation. The "real world" settings are, at times, almost photo-real, executed with incredible detail and gorgeous light and texture. (By comparison, the Painter’s own work is somewhat cartoonish.)
But the characterizations are sufficiently well rounded, and the dialogue lively enough, to keep the film crackling along. (Despite, that is, the occasional clunk of heavy-handed social commentary: "How would you know what He thinks?" Roma demands of Great Candlestick, who has just been putting words in the mouth of the Painter; at another juncture, a halfie offers the forlorn hope that in order to be safe from the blood lust of the all dones, "We just have to be quiet, like they want.")
This film’s virtues are primarily on its surface. Were it a mere still image made of paint on a canvas, that would not make it great. But as a film, "The Painting" is a wonderful thing, dazzling to behold: It’s vision, as it were, lay with how it looks, and in this instance that’s enough for a magnificent first (and even second) viewing experience.
There are only a few extras: a theatrical trailer, a half-hour "Making Of" featurette, and a "slide show" comprised of rough renderings, sketches and the like -- a sort of scrapbook of the film’s conceptualizations and development. The expressive animation, dynamic & vibrant colors, and charming affect of the finished work is no accident, and these extras give us the means to appreciate that fact.