I wish director Raoul Ruiz had cut the ends off his movie about the painter Gustav Klimt. It wants desperately not to be a typical biopic, yet it cannot resist supporting its leisurely, phantasmagorical middle with two short but distracting reality-bound bookends featuring Klimt on his deathbed.

John Malkovich, in beard and bearing a stiff posture, plays Klimt. He doesn't do biopics, Ruiz tells us in a short film accompanying the DVD. But while moaning on his back like the best of dying daytime soap stars he sure does. But most of the movie isn't so, bubbling seductively between Klimt's life and imagination as he saunters through cafes, bars, galleries and brothels, often (always?) in a state of delusional reverie.

Save for a few captions denoting the year, Ruiz has erased the usual signposts that shepherd us through such a story. Though habits of a life emerge -- affairs with the likes of Lea de Castro (Saffron Burrows), conversations with an imaginary friend, fistfights on the street — the episodes transition without the effect of a linear story so much as an overall impression. Similarly, the characters don't talk in the contrivances meant to support a plot. Mostly they talk about art. Sometimes what they have to say is revealing. Sometimes it's rubbish. Sometimes it's muffled by big gorilla masks.

Watch the film without a fair amount of background on the artist already and it's easy to become lost, especially because the dialogue went through three translations before it settled into English. Though you can't always tell if Gustav or Raoul is the crazy one, being adrift has never felt so pleasant.

"Klimt" is a beautiful, luxurious movie, enveloping in its production and costume design. Describing it as a Klimt painting is an unnecessarily trite reduction. Its look is more of a saving grace, a sumptuous evocation of the Edwardian era. If you can overlook the weirder moments, it's the best non-biopic of memory. (NR)

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