Around this time last year, I visited the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres. The visit helped clarify my own thoughts on politics and art. While, theoretically, I belief that art’s impact should be primarily aesthetic, questioning my own mixed reactions to Dalí’s post-Surrealist work – which was overtly pro-capitalist and prone to flights of self-obsession – clarified that I struggle to engage with art that’s either apolitical or explicitly aligned with politics opposed to my own. Dalí’s work is creative and expression and expertly crafted but the clash with my own sensibilities left me conflicted.
Charlotte Sieling’s The Man (aka Mesteren) isn’t about Dalí, but its portrait of two solipsistic artists recalled last year’s realisations. The film centres on the world famous (fictional) Danish artist Simon (Søren Malling) and his son, Casper (Jakob Oftebro), who is visiting Simon’s home/warehouse. There are a handful of moons orbiting this two-body system – Simon’s wife Darling (Ane Dahl Torp), his mistress Lai (Sus Wilkins) and a handful of artists – but this is very much a story of Simon and Casper. Simon’s work is aesthetically impressive (a rare feat for a fictional artist!) but apparently absent any grand meaning; he plods around his warehouse in cigarette-stained pyjamas and evinces little interest in anything outside himself.
Casper’s an artist, too, and its their conflicting styles and approaches to art where the film finds its conflict. Casper – nicknamed ‘The Ghost’ – is very much in the bold of Banksy, plastering huge drawings across the sides of Danish buildings. But where Banksy’s work is unmistakably political (and often – and often unfairly – characterised as ‘mak u think’ simplistic), Casper’s work feels personal. His drawings are pointedly directed at his father, including images of foetuses and childish misbehaviour. They struck me as an attempt to instigate a dialogue that never eventuates.
Each artist, in their own way, seems impossibly obsessed with themselves and each other. Simon takes his son’s talent as an insult, offering in faint praise in person and denigrating it in private. Like Amadeus’ Salieri, he seems more intent on his perceived opponent’s failure than his own success (though any overt attempts at sabotage are saved for the explosive final act). Casper, meanwhile, sets about finagling his way into his father’s life, endeavouring to seduce both Darling and Lai. As the film repeatedly reminds us, he’s “provocative”, but it comes across as empty provocation.
I suspect that’s the point. The aching, vacant tone that Sieling adopts here feels like a distant echo of Buñuel’s satire in films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel, films that savagely dissected the self-interest and oblivious uselessly of the upper class. Where Buñuel – one of those Surrealists that Dalí split with, of course – was aggressively political, though, Sieling struggles to find purpose to her satire beyond ‘rich artists are hopelessly narcissistic’.
The consequence is this is that the film tends to flounder in its midsection, focusing on the foibles of men we’re encouraged to dismiss. But it makes for an impressive final act that redeems much of what came before (the sub-90 minute runtime doesn’t hurt either). The reveal of Casper’s precise purpose for visiting Simon is a killer payoff, and one that proves there is artistic merit in performative self-obsession … even it’s maybe not a great way to live your life.