THE STORY – Follow Apolonia, a young artist, over the course of 13 years. She was born into a genuine French artistic milieu. At the age of 21, she was accepted into a prestigious art academy. Now, she is trying to find her place in life as an artist.
THE CAST – Apolonia, Hervé Breuil, Lea Glob & Oksana Shachko
THE TEAM – Lea Glob (Director/Writer) & Andreas Bøggild Monies (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
Filmmaker Léa Glob’s documentary “Apolonia, Apolonia” displays an epic commitment to an idea that should make “Boyhood” director Richard Linklater take notice. For a film school assignment in 2009, Glob was asked to “depict a person” by following them for some time to create a revealing film portrait. It was her good fortune to select a young art student named Apolonia Sokol, who stood out thanks in large part due to her outsized personality. One would expect such an assignment to last for, at most, a week or two. Glob, on the other hand, continued to film Apolonia for the next 13 years. With such a commitment of time, she is not only able to capture the struggles of a young woman trying to forge her own path in the art world but also to provide an unsettling portrait of today’s art world itself.
Apolonia’s childhood was an unusual one: the child of two immigrant actors who lived in a ramshackle theater in Paris, she was surrounded by artists of all kinds throughout her formative years, so becoming a painter herself may have seemed like a foregone conclusion. When Glob enters her life, Apolonia is about to graduate at the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris, where her male professors judge her paintings as less interesting than her personality, a stinging critique that she fails to take to heart at first. At this point, this reviewer began to lose faith in “Apolonia, Apolonia” and its snapshot of a painter who believes her artistic vision is better than it is. Watching such self-absorption among the bohemian class didn’t seem to offer much promise. But it’s exactly where Glob’s relentless filming schedule begins to pay dividends. Seeing other classmates being lauded for their work, Apolonia realizes that she will have to carve her own path in the art world; to do that, her approach to her work may have to broaden.
That catalyst for change soon comes in the form of Oksana Shachko, whom Apolonia takes in after the young woman is barred from returning home to Ukraine due to her political activism. Oksana, who soon becomes Apolonia’s “soulmate,” begins to open the artist’s eyes to issues in the world far beyond the walls of her family’s theater. With an emphasis on the struggle for rights for women and queer people, Apolonia’s work soon begins to evolve from desolate, solitary figures to groups of happier people, usually women. Soon after, her paintings became noticed, leading to exhibitions in New York and eventually Los Angeles.
There, the film broadens its view to examine a disturbing trend in the art world — specifically, the industrialization of art in Southern California. Just as Apolonia is growing as an artist, she meets super-collector Stefan Simchowitz (whom the New York Times has labeled as the art world’s “patron Satan”). Stefan offers her a studio from which to work on the condition that she produce ten monthly paintings that he would then own and sell. On the surface, it seems like a good deal, providing Apolonia with a pathway to a lucrative career as an artist. The downside, however, is that the relentless quotas drain her of any inspiration, and the quality of her work is diminished, possibly jeopardizing all that she has accomplished so far.
Glob’s shooting style is not that of the dispassionate observer or a fly on the wall. Besides serving as the film’s narrator, she is not hesitant to become part of the action as well, often conversing with Apolonia on camera about what is on her mind that day. Glob’s filming approach is very much on the fly, constantly running several steps behind the artist, trying to catch up (Jerky shots of Apolonia’s back as she runs are a recurring image throughout). But those years of filming have forged a genuine bond between the two women. And, when Apolonia is hit with tragic news or when Glob undergoes a life-threatening pregnancy, the women are there for each other. Still, 13 years of footage is much to sift and edit together to make a coherent two-hour story. While the enormous editing job is remarkable in many ways, the narrative itself contains several gaps in Apolonia’s growth that momentarily take us out of the film and require us to presume what must have occurred.
Nevertheless, what never disappears is the bond they share as women in the arts, whether it be in film or painting. Whether it’s professors who dismiss their work or collectors who try to own them, men can often provide an obstacle to success for female artists. Forging their way into the art world for women can be a particularly challenging path, but as Glob so ably demonstrates in “Apolonia, Apolonia,” the result can be the emergence of a much-needed new voice. In the years since filming, Apolonia has gone on to become an essential force in the New French Painting movement, and one can only hope that Glob someday picks up her camera again to show us her progress.