In 2008, a painfully precocious nineteen-year-old Erik Jensen (now editor-in-chief of the Saturday Paper and screenwriter for this film), received a phone call from painter Adam Cullen requesting that he come to his shambolic home-studio in the Blue Mountains to pen his biography. The film version of this conversation ends like this:
“Adam Cullen is not difficult, nor is he one-dimensional.”
A pause and afterthought:
“I want my Da to read this book.”
Thus, begins the negotiation of Cullen’s character through Jensen’s writing. The film is based on Jensen’s 2014 book Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen in which the journalist attempts to make psychological sense of Cullen in his final years. The young journalist and older ‘genius’ is a format definitely seen before, most recently in framing Stanley Tucci’s 2017 Final Portrait featuring Geoffrey Rush as an aging Alberto Giacometti.
In this situation, the writer is the normal guy sent to make sense of the art world––its reverence for beauty, its obsession with genius–– and sets us up to observe the eccentricities of the artist. Giacometti is shown to be a womaniser, and though the fact is not lost of the audience, a small army of sculptures and a few portraits serve to somehow balance this. In this post-Nanette world, it is hopefully fair to say that audiences are approaching this kind of mythologising a little more critically.
Happily, and refreshingly, this film does nothing to romanticise. The film detaches the artist from his work, and in the absence of any beauty or reverence, resulting from his manipulative personality, we are left with someone dangerous, sensitive and grotesque––like taking Picasso away from his paint box, according to Gadsby.
Daniel Henshall stars as Cullen and is just as unnerving as his character, often entirely through the expression of his eyes. He has a few very disarming moments of softness and wit; the next minute it’s like Snowtown again. Playing the role of Jensen, Toby Wallace is doe-like, possessing an intelligence that descends into innocence and insecurity, especially when framed directly by Cullen through the lens of his video camera.
The film is not explicit in its attempts to debunk genius, largely because the question of Cullen’s talent remains unresolved. Artistic output is often elevated to the level of the sacred object in an attempt to consolidate a flawed character. He was an undoubtedly fine painter and sculptor, and perhaps because of Jensen’s closeness to Cullen the work is stripped of any reverence and instead seems entirely symptomatic of the artist’s own psychological conflict (hint: it has a lot to do with parental jealousy). What we do see is Cullen in the act of creating himself. He strings out recycled quotes whilst gazing into the middle distance, cigarette stub held pensively; often shreds of wisdom with echoes of Bukowski and Burroughs. It is also revealed on numerous occasions that he is a pathological liar, and it is through this that he manipulates the image of his own power with tyrannical consequences.
Cinematographers Stefan Duscio and Germain McMicking do a fantastic job of negotiating the gap between Cullen as he was and the person he wished to be. Long visceral shots with Cullen toting a gun and vodka bottle against the Blue Mountains are interspersed with unsparing footage of his declining health. Distributed throughout the film are brief but poignant vignettes which give excellent insight into the psychology of the relationship between Cullen and Jensen. Though the film seems to lose its grasp on time occasionally, the complexity of the cinematography demands a second viewing to fully appreciate its functioning as a portrait.
At the start of his book, Jensen includes an email exchange with artist Dale Frank in which they discuss the perils of biography, particularly in relation to its tendency to mythologise. Where other biographical films have an air of certainty about their subjects, often leaving some characterisation and storytelling to cliché, Acute Misfortune is certain of its ambiguity––and all the more truthful for it.
Acute Misfortune starts showing at Luna Palace Cinemas on May 16.