I, Claude Monet is an experimental documentary directed by Phil Grabsky based entirely on the eponymous artist’s personal letters. Monet’s voice is brought to life by acclaimed actor Henry Goodman in a documentary that forgoes traditional narration and talking heads in favour of much more unconventional techniques.
I, Claude Monet creates a disjointed autobiographical account of the founder of French Impressionist painting through his written correspondence with various different people throughout his life. This narration is juxtaposed with the paintings that coincide with these periods in Monet’s life. There are over 100 of Monet’s paintings shown in this documentary and some of his letters record encounters with fellow Impressionist artists Eugene Boudin, Camille Pissarro and even Prime Minister George Clemenceau.
Now while there is a certain insight to be gained from the artist’s inner turmoil at different periods in his life, it is fascinating to hear a man who would go on to be regarded as one of the world’s greatest artists. But I would question the cinematic merits of this project and whether this documentary would be of an interest to anyone who is not a Claude Monet fan already.
I, Claude Monet is part of the film series Exhibition On Screen, a series that works with top international museums and galleries to try and create a sense of cinematic immersion into the world’s best loved art combined with detailed biographies. The director of the film, Phil Grabsky, has said that one of the questions he is asked most frequently is, “Why would I go to the cinema to see an art exhibition?” and he has said that he finds it easy to answer, “because what they offer is an opportunity to see an exhibition if you can’t get a ticket or you don’t live in the country of the exhibition.”
I think how you feel about that answer will dictate how you feel about this documentary. I have very little interest in Monet and often found the incessant thoughts of his life to be tedious and incoherent, offering little to keep my interest when paired with works of art I have very little affinity with. There is a distinct lack of cinematic flair to this picture and I struggle to find any other reason for it to be seen in a cinema, other than the reason given by the film’s director. But I still feel like Sky Arts is a more suitable fit for this type of programming.
With that being said, for a documentary that often felt more like a chore rather than resembling anything that came close to consistently keeping my attention, it did manage to create a genuine sense of investment in Monet’s plight in the later stages of his life. There was something tragic and harrowing about hearing the personal accounts of the artist’s struggles with his failing eyesight which greatly affected his work. It was the point in the documentary where those with no interest or familiarity with Monet could relate and feel a sense of empathy with the man. We all fear our own mortality and deteriorating condition, so to hear the thoughts of an artist who dedicated his life to his paintings deal with such events was when the documentary was at its most poignant.