Charlotte: insipid animated portrait of an artist as a young woman

Charting the life of German Expressionist painter Charlotte Salomon, this animated feature lacks the complexity, vigour and imagination that characterise its subject’s best work.

Charlotte (2021)

There is a self-portrait by the German Expressionist painter Charlotte Salomon that has become emblematic of the artist. In the painting, a woman stares directly at the viewer, her expression wary; her hair is swept back, her face framed by fine lines. It is this portrait from which directors Éric Warin and Tahir Rana have drawn their inspiration for the visual style of their new film Charlotte, telling the artist’s story through 2D animation. Characters’ shapes and forms are defined by delicate linework and shades of pastel. Soft interiors provide a faded backdrop to the phases and events of Salomon’s life: domesticity with her father and stepmother before the rise of the Nazi regime; a brief stint at an art school, before she is expelled for being Jewish; two love affairs; the poisoning of her grandfather; and her eventual capture by the Nazis.

In the film’s more visually daring moments, brushstrokes appear and watercolor spreads across the screen as if it were a canvas; sketches take form slowly, to the swell of a score by Michelino Bisceglia. These sequences attempt to pay tribute to Salomon’s lifelong contribution to Expressionism, an intensely modernist movement and one whose practitioners were targeted by the Nazi regime. Salomon’s magnum opus is a near-800 painting series titled Leben? oder Theater? – translated in English as Life? or Theater? – which would certainly lend itself to a richly animated adaptation; many consider it an early graphic novel. But there is little variation in the animation style over the course of this film.

It’s a remarkable shortcoming for a movie about an artist known for her powerful, imaginative use of colour. In Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s 2017 film Loving Vincent, widely touted as the world’s first fully oil-painted film, the animation replicates Vincent van Gogh’s own artistic process; in true post-Impressionistic style, realism is sacrificed for the impression of movement, and emotions are rendered raw and vibrant. Warin and Rana attempt to do the same for Salomon, but the film seemingly lacks an interest in exploring what makes its subject’s paintings so dramatic. The designs feel muted and generic; everything is painted in broad strokes, and so swaths of emotional complexity are lost.

Salomon’s thorny decisions are flattened further by simplistic storytelling, as we move automatically through each tragic event as if browsing the sections of her Wikipedia page. By the time Salomon poisons her possibly abusive grandfather, the film’s rote biographical trappings have left little room for imagining or evoking the conflicting forces behind such a choice, one that was sure to risk tarnishing her legacy. These inner tensions can be glimpsed in Salomon’s own self-portrait; in their surprisingly conventional biopic, Warin and Rana fail to evince the same turmoil.

Charlotte is in UK cinemas now.