Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table

The biopic has been a staple in filmmaking since the sound era began, though over the years literary figures seem to have gotten fewer screen treatments than other notables. On Friday, Gene Siskel Film Center opens Haifaa al-Mansou’s 2017 film Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, and next Tuesday, Chicago Film Society screens Charles Vidor’s 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye. Taking a page from these, we’ve selected five additional biopics about writers, ones that don’t just rest on words but also offer up some visual artistry.

The Color of Pomegranates
The late Sergei Paradjanov’s greatest film, a mystical and historical mosaic about the life, work, and inner world of the 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, was previously available only in the ethnically “dry-cleaned” Russian version—recut and somewhat reorganized by Sergei Yutkevich, with chapter headings added to clarify the content for Russian viewers. This superior 1969 version of the film, found in an Armenian studio in the early 90s, shouldn’t be regarded as definitive (some of the material from the Yutkevich cut is missing), but it’s certainly the finest we have and may ever have: some shots and sequences are new, some are positioned differently, and, of particular advantage to Western viewers, much more of the poetry is subtitled. (Oddly enough, it’s hard to tell why the “new” shots were censored.) In both versions the striking use of tableaulike frames recalls the shallow space of movies made roughly a century ago, while the gorgeous uses of color and the wild poetic conceits seem to derive from some utopian cinema of the future, at once “difficult” and immediate, cryptic and ravishing. This is essential viewing. 78 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Karl May
Part two of Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s trilogy on the cultural formation of modern Germany (the other two installments are Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King and Our Hitler: A Film From Germany). Syberberg again uses the Wagnerian fusion of theater, cinema, music, and extreme length (185 minutes) that became his trademark, though this time his subject is not an Ubermensch but an ordinary man: Karl May, the author of innumerable pulp novels of the turn of the century, whose westerns and detective stories created what Syberberg views as a new German mythology to replace the crumbling classical models. May’s imaginative transformation of reality, Syberberg suggests, would later be literally reenacted by the Third Reich (1974). 187 min. —Dave Kehr

An Angel at My Table
Jane Campion’s stirring 1990 follow-up to Sweetie adapts the autobiographical trilogy of New Zealand writer Janet Frame into a 163-minute feature, originally made for New Zealand TV—clearly a labor of love by a masterful talent responding to a soul mate. The poetic empathy, the beautiful offbeat framing and unexpected transitions, and the magnificent handling of actors are all pure Campion. (Her work is especially impressive with the three who play Frame at different ages—Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, and Kerry Fox; their suggestions of fragility, painful shyness, and passionate inner life effortlessly dovetail into one another.) On the other hand, the form—a miniseries about the formation of a writer—is a lot more conventional and straightforward than that of Sweetie, as are the script by Laura Jones (High Tide) and Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography. Basically composed of short, elliptical scenes, this work’s three parts were intended to be seen separately (which theatrical presentation makes impractical). Charting Frame’s life through the hell of being different (misdiagnosed as schizophrenic during her teens, she was forced to submit to hundreds of shock treatments) toward some adult fulfillment, Campion makes this a genuinely inspirational story without a breath of sentimentality. No less remarkably for such an intensely visual director, she conveys a writer’s sensibility, getting us to share in a life lived in and through words. 163 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 account of taking drugs and behaving like an asshole in Las Vegas yields a singularly unpleasant 1998 feature from writer-director Terry Gilliam, though one with a lot of creativity and a scuzzy integrity of its own. There’s a good grasp of period, an impressive impersonation of the author-hero by an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp, and a determination to honor the original in all its gross-out particulars. I assume that part of the idea here was to play in the ambiguous zones where Las Vegas tackiness, LSD hallucinations, Gilliam beasties, and lots of vomit become difficult to separate. It’s certainly distinctive, looking at times like Richard Lester put through a postmodernist blender, and Gilliam, an American expatriate since the 60s, skewers his native country with guts and zeal. 119 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Amour Fou
The struggle of German poet Heinrich von Kleist to arrange the perfect romantic suicide in 1811 becomes the stuff of icy black comedy in the ever-steady hands of writer-director Jessica Hausner (Lourdes). This 2014 feature unfolds largely from the perspective of Henriette Vogel, the aristocratic woman who joined Kleist in his mission; both consider life to be meaningless, but whereas his position seems like an artist’s pretense, hers seems grounded in lived experience. Hausner depicts the experience of upper-class women in pre-democratic Germany as utter tedium, a never-ending series of overcomplicated social conventions that allow for no spontaneity (let alone independent thought). The mise-en-scene is appropriately suffocating, marked by scrupulous production design and rigid, geometric framing, yet a savage, liberating wit lies beneath the surface; this often plays like a wicked parody of Eric Rohmer’s Kleist adaptation, The Marquise of O (1976). In German with subtitles. 96 min. —Ben Sachs