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Review: Calvet (updated with director’s comments)

Calvet - Image © Ella Manor Studios 2010

A film with the pace of a music video: upbeat, fast, and – in a weird kind of way – flashy and young. That is how you can describe Calvet, Dominic Allan’s latest documentary about the colourful French-Nicaraguan painter Jean-Marc Calvet.

From its opening scene onwards you are being sucked in. The music, the artist and the scenery become one and while the charismatic, fast talking Calvet sets out how he went from small time bodyguard in France to become a Miami mobster’s right hand all you can think of is ‘wow’.

Allan manages to capture the painter’s personality and by following the artist’s steps from gutter to selling paintings in upper class New York galleries, we hear the most fascinating tales.

A teenage street kid, a spell in the Foreign Legion, professional bodyguard, and underground thug – Calvet has been there and further. When his luck run out and he had dug himself a whole bigger than he could handle he gave up, ready to die. That is, until he discovered painting.

It is with a sense of awe that you will look back on the film, in which the artist at the last moment goes one step further than the past and leaps into the future: trying to get in touch with his son – a boy he left behind during his turbulent years before he found his passion.

The verdict? Calvet is certainly not a light affair but one you will walk away from feeling good.

Not a ‘traditional’ documentary

Some of the scenery in the film is staged due to the simple fact that places were no longer as they were, and this does not get in the way of the sometimes hard-hitting reality. What does, however, is looking back on the film in hindsight. You could be left with a feeling that perhaps the speed talking Calvet was rapidly running so as to avoid some deep investigative questions – or perhaps for the sake of the story they have been left out?

“I wanted to make a documentary that had the gripping experience that you associate with a movie,” explains director Dominic Allan. “I was very careful to make sure it sat 100% within documentary integrity. It’s an interesting discussion.

“I am sure there are those who feel uncomfortable with how we chose to put the film together. I think that’s because it is not really what you expect when you go to see a documentary. Though we didn’t break the norm for the sake of it, purely becuase that’s how we saw it. The internal barometer leads the way  – which is the only satisfying way to make films in my view. I don’t feel the exploration of the subject suffered at all in depth. It attempts to reflect and evolve the nature of Calvet’s character. I certainly didn’t hold back in the investigation or choice of material which ended up in the final cut.”

See the BAFTA nominated film and decide for yourself.

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Alexandra Zeevalkink is a Dutch-born journalist living in London who founded DocGeeks in August 2011 in order to have a legitimate excuse to watch every documentary under the sun. She freelances for various publications and writes mainly about documentaries and the film production industry. When she is not blogging or watching films, she enjoys theater, photography and reading loads of books. She is always on the look out for potential partnerships with other creative minds.

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