Charlotte Salomon painting

TIFF 2021: Charlotte Review

Paints a beautiful portrait of the late artist

Did Charlotte Salomon create the first graphic novel? That sentiment appears at the end of Charlotte, which delicately portrays the life and work of the painter who died tragically young. This gorgeous, if unexpectedly dark, animated film by Eric Warin and Tahir Rana explores an artist’s coming of age. Voiced by Keira Knightley in the English version, which this review considers, Charlotte paints Salomon’s story in loving strokes. (Marion Cotillard plays Salomon in the French translation.) Charlotte poetically pays tribute to Salomon’s work while illustrating the history that informed her creative vision.

The young Salomon embarks on her career upon landing a spot at Berlin’s prestigious United State Schools for Pure and Applied Arts. The year is 1936, however, and German Jews like Charlotte are under close watch. She excels at her studies and throws herself into honing her craft. Charlotte develops a unique, almost hurried way of capturing reality. She defines herself in casual, economical strokes. This style becomes especially powerful upon the film’s close.

A fine cast of voice actors brings this tragedy to life as Warin and Raha interpret Salomon’s story through the work she left behind. Canadian actors including Julian Richings, Henry Czerny, and Raoul Bhaneja pay tribute to Salomon alongside a cast of international talents like Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn, and an instantly recognizable Eddie Marsan. While the actors, especially Knightley, imbue the film with richly dramatic interpretations, Charlotte gives the late artist the most prominent role. Salomon’s voice is ever-present in the beautifully composed frames.

Life? Or Theatre?

Although she proves herself a genuine talent among her classmates, Charlotte finds herself expelled for reasons of anti-Semitism. Her parents decide to send her to live in hiding with her grandparents. The move doesn’t quite put Salomon in hiding à la Anne Frank, for her refuge is a grand estate in the South of France. The home, owned by American art lover Ottilie Moore (Sophie Okonedo), serves as a refuge for Jews in need of safe shelter. The relationship with the wise and worldly Ottilie proves enlightening. So too does Charlotte’s budding romance with Ottilie’s ward/housekeeper Alexander (Sam Claflin). Moreover, the latter sparks the romantic yearning that every artist needs.

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This period of Salomon’s life proves extraordinarily prolific. Charlotte recognizes the atrocities of the Holocaust even if the reality of the camps is not yet clear. She sees people, lives, and families vanish. She observes the beauty of life in mundane acts. Charlotte recognizes that her family, like any family, has a history worth preserving and sharing. She commits herself to telling her family’s story through art. The result is a 1000-piece expressionist autobiography entitled Life? Or Theatre? Sadly, it would be her one and only masterpiece. Each frame is a chapter, episode, or moment that made an impression upon her. Taken as a whole, though, they’re the story of a life interrupted.

The Artist’s Palette

Charlotte is a handsomely striking study of art’s ability to preserve history both objectively and subjectively. One could call Salomon’s art the work of a documentarian even though she commits paintbrush to paper, instead of recording a verité-style account of life in photographs, film frames, or written words. As someone in hiding with only her memories to draw from, Charlotte’s painting proves the only viable way of documenting the history unfolding before her eyes.

After Charlotte breaks from its devastating account of our heroine’s final days in the South of France, Warin and Rana shift from the eye-catching animated frames to old-stock documentary footage of Salomon’s parents after the war. They consider their daughter’s body of work and poignantly note that they’re the brushstrokes of an unfinished life. However, in this moment, they encapsulate the beauty that lives in the hurried imperfections of Charlotte’s work. These are the records of an artist who knew that her time was limited.

Charlotte could not pay a finer tribute to Salomon than in the painterly frames with which Warin and Rana recount her story. Each composition of Charlotte bears the influence of Salomon’s aesthetic. It’s as if she summoned a moving and living painting to life.  Charlotte compels a viewer to learn more about the lives of artists whose portfolios closed before they had only just begun.

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Charlotte premieres at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

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