Picture this: It’s 1941 in Paris, and a young SS commander named Stahl has forced his way into the apartment of a French art curator to notify her that her brother was found to be working for the French Resistance and summarily shot. The curator works for the commander at a museum where Stahl oversees the city’s art collections and picks out the best pieces for shipment back to the Fatherland. He threatens the curator that if he finds her allegiance to lie with the Resistance she too will be shot. Before he leaves, the curator demands to be given her brother’s body. “If you want his body then you should look at the bottom of the Seine!” he shouts.
Then they both laugh. The commander has mispronounced the name of the river.
“Aha, I made it sound like ‘scene,’ as though I meant an art scene. Ha ha ha!” The commander laughs.
“As though my brother is ‘in the scene’ rather than dead in the river!” The French curator also laughs.
They throw their heads back and laugh together. The commander rocks back on his heels, wracked with heaving laughs. He dabs his eyes with a handkerchief. The curator puts a hand on her collarbone daintily to catch her breath from all the laughs. Then commander Stahl pulls out his Luger pistol and shoots the curator twice in the chest.
Oh man. What a sad, funny, and jarring scene! I guess it’s too bad that it never happened, because it perfectly exemplifies the split personality of George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, which opens this weekend.
This war film-cum-heist dramedy acquaints us with a special task force of middle-aged, out-of-shape art scholars that deploys to northern Europe after the Normandy invasion on a mission to find and protect the great artworks of European civilization, which the Nazis have been stealing and hoarding for a museum Hitler intends to build after he wins the war. If he loses, Hitler means to destroy all the art because he is, well, Hitler. Our eponymous English, American, and French heroes are especially intent on recovering the Ghent Altarpiece and Madonna of Bruges.
Permit me a few paragraphs to get out my gripes. To start, this stunning cast—featuring Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, and John Goodman, for heaven’s sakes—somehow never manages to find its footing as a cohesive whole. The ensemble is simply too massive and unwieldy to let any individual character shine or any relationship to take on any meaning. This is about as depressing and frustrating as watching NASCAR drivers race paddleboats, and far less fun.
Then there’s the tone. Scenes alternate between goofy character humor, thrilling heist-y intrigue, war drama, and straight-up jarring confrontations with the reality of the holocaust. There’s even a joke so confusing in its delivery and context that I mistook it as implicating one character as a pedophile. In the absence of its heavy-handed musical cues, I don’t think I would have known how I was supposed to feel about almost anything I saw during this movie.
I mean that. Consider a run of scenes: One minute John Goodman is accidentally shooting at his comrade in arms and the next minute his comrade is on the brink of killing a terrified German boy in a Wehrmacht uniform. One moment Matt Damon has a comedically close encounter with a landmine, and the next moment he and his friends are uncovering a barrel full of gold teeth. One moment Bill Murray is being himself, and the next moment he is also being himself, and I thank God for that because Bill Murray is a delight and a sign of God’s grace to us in the midst of all this confusion.
Finally, the plot itself. There are many different threads vying for our attention in this weft. Problems start when the group splits up after landing in Europe. Too new to us and underdeveloped to elicit real sympathy or affection, they scatter like mice and we have to tag along with each pair in turn as they scamper against time, chance, and eventually the advancing Red Army to reclaim the stolen art.
And oh: the art, the art. Ostensibly the center of the film is art—the celebration of art, the love of art, the role of art in the lives of people and cultures, the importance of art—and yet somehow the film falters in commending “art” to us as an idea, an object of love, a way of life, anything.
To wit, the audience at my screening was silent when new troves of sculptures and paintings were being discovered and saved, but collectively gasped at the reveal of a Nazi vault full of gold bars. John Goodman’s character comments to another art scholar during a military press junket over the captured gold that “the U.S. Army doesn’t give a damn about art, but it sure does care about gold.” The irony is that the film fails to dig its audience out of the same hole. There are a handful of close, appreciative shots that allow us to gaze at the contours of a draped marble cloak or the soft shading of a face in a Renaissance portrait. Otherwise, though, the art is shown in mass quantities. We see assemblages of treasure items, stacks of generic visual furniture for our heroes to find and reclaim as they advance the plot.
And what a shame all of this is. Some of the jokes land well enough; there are clear emotional beats in places; the horror and sense of loss at the Nazis’ destruction of a collection of canvases is real and effectively conveyed—but overall, the waste of talent here is deplorable. Considering the depth of the cast and the richness of the source material, there is no excuse for this movie to be such a mess.
Now all of that is true, but not the whole truth. Because in spite of the terminal flaws of The Monuments Men, there was still a moment that delivered the goods for me, and I see it as pointing to what could have happened had one of the film’s several conflicting personalities been fully realized.
Here’s the scene: One night during the Battle of the Bulge Bill Murray and Bob Balaban (I could say “their characters,” but really, it’s Bill Murray and Bob Balaban) are opening packages received from home, and Murray’s includes a vinyl recording of his wife and children sending a Christmas greeting to him. He comments to Balaban that he ought to requisition a phonograph to listen to it later, and heads to the shower tent. In a medical tent nearby, other characters have just brought in a wounded soldier they found in a ditch and are trying to reassure him that he will live, even as a doctor quietly calls for a priest to say last rites.
At this moment, the music playing across the camp over the loudspeakers cuts off, and children’s voices sound out. Murray’s companion has requisitioned that phonograph, and Murray’s kids are now wishing a Merry Christmas to everyone in camp.
Then, Murray’s wife begins to sing. The crackling of the phonograph fades, and her voice, clear as a bell, carries “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” over the snow-covered, moonlit tents.
Murray is alone in the shower tent and slumps down onto a bench, his eyes welling up. His companion smiles benevolently next to the turning record as he holds a mic up to the phonograph cone. A German-American G.I. clutches the hand of the dying man he helped to bring in, and weeps as the young soldier shakes and grimaces and pales. All the while, Murray’s wife sings.
In this moment we’re given a snapshot of “art,” that life-or-death concern the movie has had such a hard time showing to be a life-or-death concern. Rather than a visual surface, the sound of a voice comes out of the darkness from a far-away place, and brings into being a piece of music familiar to those hearing it but also new to them for being a unique performance. It seizes the attention of each character and crystallizes some part of his life for him: Murray weeps out of homesickness; Balaban smiles at the beauty of the music and the good thing he is doing; the German-American G.I. is wracked with a grief that spikes with the bitter irony of the song’s juxtaposition with the death at hand. The audience in turn receives all of this in a great, complicated bundle.
In one of its primary modes, art is about life, and here a single piece of art issues from silence and darkness—a kind of ‘beyond’—and brings out the juts and incongruous edges of life put under the strain of war. Here, The Monuments Men briefly grasps at the hem of a Big Idea. If it had hung on, who knows what sort of sharp and compelling film may have come into being. Instead, it backs away into the crowd, unsure of where it needs to go or what it’s supposed to do. The movie is lost, and as the monuments men themselves would tell us, there’s not much that’s sadder than lost art.