The Academy of Muses
Directed by José Luis Guerín
September 2-13 at Anthology Film Archives
A film about the head-spinning process of applied learning in the humanities, The Academy of Muses, the latest doc-inflected fiction by acclaimed 46-year-old Catalan auteur José Luis Guerín, embarks on an off-the-cuff study of pedagogy at the postgraduate level—highlighting in particular the sexual politics of the student-teacher relationship. In a prefatory title card, Muses declares itself to be an “educational experience” featuring Raffaele Pinto, a real-life Dante scholar on the faculty of philology at the University of Barcelona. Pinto stars here as a fictional, presumably less self-aware version of himself, lecturing about the figure of the muse throughout the history of literature—and openly soliciting poetic inspiration from, not to mention entering into extramarital affairs with, some of his simultaneously smitten and skeptical female students.
“This is a provocation, right?” asks one incredulous member of the class, in response to Pinto’s seemingly retrograde argument for the place of the muse in the present day. Outside the lecture hall, Pinto’s fellow-professor wife (Rosa Delor Muns) expresses a more serious concern about her husband’s skeezy new “methodology,” marital spats in miniature that Guerín, whose 2007 In the City of Sylvia memorably watched people watching people, peers in on through a high-sheen windowpane. The filmmaker also shows Pinto’s furtive front-seat office hours—during which he discusses the vagaries of language with fellow Italian Emanuela (Emanuela Forgetta) and counsels Mireia (Mireia Iniesta) on a rocky online romance—through the windshield of his car, a surface that also reflects back the swaying trees of the surroundings. Shot on utilitarian digital, Muses has the texture (if not the truth-telling impulse) of an on-the-fly documentary, glimpsing from a public vantage these private moments, all of which find Pinto further commingling the personal and the professional.
Pinto eventually travels with Emanuela to Sardinia, where the two make semi-curricular field recordings of the region’s singing shepherds, and with Mireia to his native Naples, where the older man and the younger woman consummate their affair. “Love is an invention of literature,” Pinto announces early on, the kind of statement that rightly seems, to his wife, a high-minded license to do just as he pleases. At every turn, the professor encourages his students to examine, exhaustively, the literary aspects of their romantic passions, transforming their entire lives into a sort of academic laboratory. By design, the lightly amusing Muses feels unfinished—Guerín, whose own methodology here involved a lot of improvisation and a minimum of outlining, has professed his fondness for the cinematic “sketch.” But, regardless, this set of notes does tap into something like a unifying thesis—that intellectualizing desire does nothing whatsoever to keep it in check.