‘Apolonia, Apolonia’ Review: An Artist Loses and Finds Herself in a Quest for Validation

Recently graduated from the Beaux-Arts de Paris, French painter Apolonia Sokol heads to the U.S. in pursuit of the bigger picture. She finds it, after a fashion, as a wealthy collector commissions her to churn out 10 canvases a month. It’s an industrial approach to art that docmaker Lea Glob views skeptically: “Why only buy the art when it’s so much cheaper to buy the artist?” she asks. In a less cynical way, however, Glob’s unusual, compelling new film “Apolonia, Apolonia” invests grandly in Sokol herself, making the artist a kind of living installation that Glob’s camera intimately observes over the course of 13 years. Sokol’s paintings, slightly distorted large-scale portraits of human subjects in eerie states of repose, are striking, but never quite as intriguing as their restless, endlessly self-doubting creator.

As a portrait of the artist as a young woman, then, “Apolonia, Apolonia” is already layered and substantial, pondering as it does matters of individual creative principle, the predominantly patriarchal functions of critique and patronage and the economic reality of millennial bohemianism in its leisurely but gradually rewarding two-hour running time. But Glob, the Danish director who had a sizeable 2015 festival hit with the similarly ambitious, artistry-centered “Olmo and the Seagull,” complicates matters further still, weaving her own experience as a creator, feminist and, finally, mother into her subject’s defiant trajectory. Some might find the inward focus of the film’s concluding stages an indulgence too far, but this IDFA competition entry — produced for HBO Max in Europe — remains an impressively idiosyncratic, far-reaching work, assured of further festival play and specialist arthouse attention.

More from Variety

If Sokol is sometimes unconfident regarding her own artist’s gaze, she is never shy in the face of a camera. Before Glob’s consistently affectionate lens, she’ll either vamp gleefully or settle into her most natural, unfiltered self, never quite forgetting she’s being watched but fully at ease with the attention. That makes her an ideal focal point for a documentary, and you can see why Glob, by her own onscreen admission, never quite knew when to put the camera down, to call time on a personal narrative that never reaches a neat resolution or resting point. (Why would it? Sokol isn’t yet 35.) And if she ultimately turned her talents toward visual art, Sokol is a born performer too: The daughter of two actors, she was raised in the scruffy independent Paris theater that, as Glob first encounters her in 2009, she still calls home.

While she completes her studies in the contrastingly posh Beaux-Arts, Sokol turns the theater into a makeshift hostel and community hub for a wide variety of friends, fellow artists and adrift activists — one of whom, asylum-seeking Ukrainian feminist Oksana Shachko, becomes the closest of friends with the seemingly polysexual Sokol, their relationship giving this sprawling film its hefty emotional anchor. Sokol’s art thrives off the diversity and energy of her highly sociable home life; when the theater is eventually repossessed and she’s forced to share a small apartment with her mother and Oksana, her work in turn appears to lose some of that dynamism. She graduates, though not with distinction, and is stung by her professors’ remarks that her paintings are less interesting than her personality.

They wouldn’t tell a male student that, she fumes, probably correctly. Yet it does seem that her work is missing some of her exuberantly chaotic approach to life, and “Apolonia, Apolonia” enters its most tense, fascinating phase as she seeks that X-factor far from home — first in New York and then in Los Angeles, where she catches the eye of controversial South African super-collector Stefan Simchowitz (dubbed the art world’s “patron Satan” by the New York Times), who puts her to work with little regard for her process, and is cool in his appreciation of the results. For the first time, Sokol is shown a potentially prolific career path as an artist. Of course, it all but freezes up her inspiration.

What does she want? Determined to forge her own path, and vocally averse to starting a family, Sokol remains unsure as she charges into her thirties, hopping from country to country before settling, atb least for a time, on home again. Watching her, however, appears to unlock the filmmaker’s own personal and artistic insecurities, as the doc’s focus shifts toward Glob’s difficult pregnancy, and her adjusted priorities in its wake. Gazing upon great art often clears our minds, sharpens our thinking and invites new ideas in; in “Apolonia, Apolonia,” tracing the long-term push-pull of someone else’s artistic process appears to do the same for the woman behind the camera.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Click here to read the full article.