Framed with sly, self-knowing conceit as “an educational experience” in its opening title card, José Luis Guerín’s The Academy of Muses plays out at least half of its screen time in a small lecture room somewhere in Barcelona, into which the film fixes a documentary-like eye. Here, a bespectacled, grey-stubbled little man spumes intellectual vigour on subjects of poetry, desire, language and art, mostly drawing from the veritables of old Italian literature. Gazing down at him from the gallery are his students – mainly women, mainly around thirty years his junior, and most of whom the philandering professor is seducing as a kind of extracurricular form of scholarship.
Thankfully for the monologue-haters in the audience, the class isn’t afraid to weigh in, and with a passion and intellect that would make many a real life University lecturer wince in envy – particularly given the actors are local non-professionals, improvising their conversation on little more than “situations” Guerín handed them the previous day. These women are the muses; or at least, it is the mission of the academy to make them so (implicitly: while they are still young). Yet what the modern muse looks like, what her responsibility is, if she is possible in modernity beyond antiquated metaphor, and whether she can wrest agency from and finally escape the patriarchal structure which sculpted her: these are the questions the film throws up in sparkling, elliptical – and often quite funny – dialectical play. Though this may sound like cerebral stodge, this education – in its absurd, piecemeal, and pathos-rich testing of the sanctity of doctrine against the messy reality of private lives – is an arresting one.
A cinephile starved of moving pictures for much of his youth, Guerín came to worship a various cast of auteurs, from John Ford to the Lumiere brothers to the Italian Neo-Realists. In the French New Wave he found a particular affinity; enlivened by its idea of a new cinema where filmmaker and film share in each other an unfolding co-mastery.1 This map-free approach to creation is clear in many of Guerín’s documentaries – from the 2010 Guest, which tracks the director’s solo peregrination of the world’s film festivals, to the 2001 Work in Progress, examining class and dispossession in the Barcelonan town of El Chino. For the fictional The Academy, things began when Raffaele Pinto – the University of Barcelona professor who appears in the film as himself – invited Guerín to document one of his seminars on classical Italian literature. Guerín had little idea what the final product would be: a short film, a video installation, a literary soap opera were all on the cards. It was only some way into filming that the material converged into its final undestined form.
Needless to say, there was not a producer in sight, or a crew for that matter. There was Guerín himself, shooting scenes with a consumer-grade camera; and there was his long-time collaborator Amanda Villavieja on sound. And that was it. During the film’s editing, if Guerin (who edited the film too) couldn’t find a suitable image, he dipped the screen to black rather than opt for reshoots or any Hollywood gimmickry – exaggerating the metafiction, while at the same time poking literal holes in the mainstream studio industry’s myth of narrative coherence. “I retained the absence,” shrugged Guerín in an interview with Film Comment, to the annoyance of some critics. “No transitions. No simulations of a transition that doesn’t exist.”
Operating a kind of magic shadow box in which to play out chimerical hypotheticals, The Academy’s main obsession is with language. “I subordinated all my resources to the staging of word,” Guerín wrote: “to that infinite space opened through the confrontation between two faces.” There are the hifalutin classroom debates, where the characters Dante and Beatrice, Lancelot and Guinevere flit in and out of arguments. There is Emanuela, whose heart is stolen by a shepherd after a surprising mid-film detour to Sardinia, and who admits her “desire wouldn’t have existed if there hadn’t been a literary context.” There are the stone courtyard discussions between pupils, where ideas are reworked outside the performativity of the classroom. And, filmed at a remove through diaphanous panes upon which tremble reflected trees and urban streets, there are the private dialogues: questionably erotic student/teacher exchanges in parked cars and, in blunt contrast, Pinto’s disdainful unmanning by his embittered wife Carla: one-woman chorus and critic.2
The academisation of love (and those other things in love’s orbit) was always a dubious kind of quest; and as his students pursue more centripetal, heart-bound paths of musing, the teachings of Pinto bloat and then pathetically deflate. When he theorises the ideal muse should “accept the goal of converting some men – not all – to their beauty”, you wonder whether his statement should be adjusted to “one man”, and if, perhaps, the foundations of the Academy are yoked to both a satyr-like fantasy and an old man’s fear of death. In the end, we find the professor too much an old school Dante fanboy to be anything but a helpless saboteur of the academy’s own cause. As signs transpire among his students suggestive of the modern muse he’s been seeking all along, Pinto’s manhood quakes and his chauvinism doubles down.3 When his nymph-of-the-moment Mireia confides in him an online romance, he shakes his head in wary bafflement (is not digital messaging as real as a sonnet? she demands. Is it not “also a literary construct?”). And when a muse breaks from tradition with a freeform system of poetry – even inventing her own word, “ondande”, to mean the roll of a wave inward, then outward – Pinto rebukes her and essentially gives her an F. Unable to enter into it himself, he sullenly pans her verse as “a room without light”.
Whirlingly eloquent, beautifully cadenced, and with enough packed in to keep a feminist scholar busy with critical reflection for some time, The Academy of Muses makes for improbably captivating viewing. Visually it’s nothing on Guerín’s last film, In the City of Sylvia – but from this organic little sketch of possibility, a song emerges, and of the kind that echoes through thought for some time.