Sleeping with a Tiger (2024) Berlinale 2024

February 17th, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir/Wri: Anja Salomonowitz | Austria, 2024 106′

A new docudrama raises the profile of Austrian avant-garde painter Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) considered one of the most important artists of the 20th/early 21st century.

Radical in its approach, Lassnig’s “body awareness paintings” focused on her own life as a woman. It celebrates the female body not from the traditional male gaze of beauty, but from the female experience of  being a sexual and biological force, exploring gender conflicts, pain, and even the fear of cancer. Lassnig had a special way of dealing with colour she termed “colour vision”. Unlike the often tortured images of her fellow Austrian expressionist Egon Shiele, Lassnig’s impressionistic art is on the whole rather easy on the eye with a gorgeous pastel allure despite the trauma it often depicts, highlighted with the use of red.

Modern artists are invariably depicted as tormented: van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Edvard Munch. Lassnig was no different according to Austrian filmmaker Anja Salomonowitz who comes to Berlinale’s Forum sidebar with her fourth film, a decade after her debut Spanien (2012). This is an impressionistic take rather than a straightforward biopic. So, although it unfolds in chronological form, interweaving acted scenes and documentary, Birgit Minichmayr (The White Rabbit) plays the central role throughout the artist’s life from a young woman until the age of 94. Lassnig emerges as a prickly, intractable but intuitive character who often feels at odds with the art world but stands by her art to the very end. Throughout Salomonowitz attempts to probe Lassnig’s core being and is keen to stress her mental state and her struggle in the male-dominated art world, which culminates in critical acclaim, the artist often seemingly rejecting her success.

From childhood, Lassnig is seen in conflict with her mother, and this troubled maternal relationship bleeds into Lassnig’s future in Vienna when she is drawn, via the capital’s Art Academy, into the local post-war art scene. Morose and strong-willed, her own body and biological state becomes a focus for her work making it highly original. Intuitively, she judges the value of her painting long before the art world makes its verdict.

Later, as an accomplished artist with her own exhibition, she is seen complaining about the hanging of her paintings (‘they are too low’)- an art in itself – and demands a rehanging, threatening to withdraw her work. The gallery assistant, claims this is the best way of to sell the paintings. But Lassnig remains faithful to her vision.

Anja Salomonowitz’s homage to the artist certainly ‘fleshes out’ the “body awareness” of Lassnig’s art but I can’t help wondering whether the film would have worked better as a straightforward documentary. Visiting Vienna for last year’s Viennale Film Festival I was captivated by Lassnig’s paintings but I left this film feeling unsettled (although not surprised) by Salomonowitz’s take on the woman herself, and her cinematic interpretation of a brave and pioneering artist whose real life was sadly tortured. Sometimes art is better left to speak for itself @MeredithTaylor

BERLINALE FORUM 2024 | 15 -25 February 2024

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