Credit: SBS Production/Sebastien Fouque
by Ayeen Forootan Featured Film

Auction — Pascal Bonitzer

March 6, 2024

Perhaps more well-known as a former Cahiers du Cinéma critic and the frequent co-screenwriter with the likes of Jacques Rivette, André Techiné, and Chantal Akerman, Pascal Bonitzer has amassed a small yet compulsive directorial oeuvre that has largely been ignored outside of French (and some more broadly international) cinephile circles. For his tenth film, Auction, which initially was conceived as a series, Bonitzer — who tends to satirically inspect the lives of the bourgeoisie with a combination of comedy and mystery — depicts the highbrow world of Parisian auctioneers at the famous (and fictional) Scottie’s auction house, where hotshot opportunist wheeler-dealer André Masson (Alex Lutz) receives a letter concerning the discovery of a painting. Said painting, by Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, had been long assumed lost — condemned and destroyed as “degenerate art” by the Nazis in 1939. Thanks to this discovery, the ambitious Masson — assisted by the consultations and connoisseurship of his ex-wife and colleague Bertina (Léa Drucker), along with eccentric intern Aurore (Louise Chevillotte) and provincial lawyer (Nora Hamzawi) sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to skyrocket his career and status in the worlds of high art and finance.

Bonitzer is one of those auteurs whose filmmaking methodology is predominantly concerned with the concise process of forming various layers of refined, scripted story and the narrative arcs and colorful relationships that envelop a large group of characters (in a manner recalling a certain Henry James-ian novelistic tradition). But what’s most noteworthy here is that the director applies a very crystalline set of images (with an obvious taste in composing architectural and urban spaces) that, with no interruption or special superiority (of “style over substance”), easily works in close parallel with the smooth and gradual flow of the narration. This is aided by an acting ensemble that provides enough room to build a casual yet grounded chemistry — whether through moments of intimacy or highlights of contrast — so that one is able to delve into a profound exploration of the complex mechanisms of the so-called “art world,” its established hierarchies, and the grander apparatuses of post-consumerist cosmopolitanism, replete with occasional tongue-in-cheek sardonicism. And though it may not be the type of narrative device that one usually expects in a film like Auction, it’s fair to suggest that Bonitzer plants a somewhat peculiar suspense at the heart of his humorous storytelling here, which works to keep viewers curious about how situations will unfold and the ways that characters may expose or expand themselves throughout their various encounters.

Indeed, the world of Auction, as Aurore observes in one scene, depicts “a business that involves playing a role, putting on an act.” But what’s especially of singular and thought-provoking importance here is the way Bonitzer precisely depicts the duality of these characters’ lives, so that while we follow the authentication process of Schiele’s masterpiece, so too do the characters begin to reveal their true selves, hidden beneath the faux propriety of their personas and social pretensions. Which is to say that in Bonitzer’s Auction, myriad histories — artistic, political, and personal — are simultaneously entwined: if Schiele’s painting is never disassociated from its World War II context, neither do the characters succeed in escaping their untold or secret stories. Taking this a step further, if one is willing to contemplate Bonitzer’s efforts on a more fundamental level, then Auction isn’t only a portrait of the day-to-day act of forging a convincing “character” or life for themselves, but also a self-reflective, genuine study about the attempts of the artist to forge fiction into the shape of a more authentic reality.

Originally published as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024.