On a psychological level, film is related to the art of embalming–or so André Bazin wrote half a century ago, in an essay that's still being chewed over. Bazin proposed that people feel a deep need to represent their world, as the next best thing to preserving it; and so the arts have struggled over the centuries toward an ever-higher degree of illusionism, till reaching the level of the sound-and-color film. This theory rests on an observation that seems to me unchallengeable: The cinema's early viewers experienced great satisfaction in seeing that pictures at last could capture not just the shape and surface texture of an object but also its motion, the visible essence of life. And yet, from the early years of cinema until now, certain directors have also felt the need to arrest motion, as if yielding to a psychological tendency to make film imitate the condition of painting.
These tableaux vivants served at first to dignify the raffish new medium of film. (They also saved directors and production designers a lot of work–as when D.W. Griffith, wanting to mount an ancient Babylonian feast for Intolerance, cribbed from a Salon painting that hung in a New York restaurant.) Later, frozen art-historical moments have figured prominently in stories about painters, who in the movies rarely have to go through the brain-wracking work of developing a composition, sketch after sketch. More often, these movie painters reproduce scenes that magically appear to them, all nice and finished–either in the real world (if the artist is van Gogh in Lust for Life) or in an inspired inner vision (such as the one that strikes the maestro in Pasolini's The Decameron).
There is also a strong, though less popular, tradition of making paintings-on-film for purposes of comedy, satire or critical commentary. Having been translated out of context, the original image becomes, in Marcel Duchamp's terms, a reverse readymade (meaning, for example, a Rembrandt used as an ironing board). Jean-Luc Godard has done quite a lot of this kind of thing (perhaps most notably in Passion). And before him, there was Luis Buñuel, who in Viridiana (1961) gave us the locus classicus: the moment when a crowd of beggars, who are throwing themselves a banquet, freeze in a parody of Leonardo's Last Supper.
The great Spanish actor Francisco Rabal happened to have participated in Viridiana. Now I see that he's back in the tableau vivant business, starring as the title character in Goya in Bordeaux. Written and directed by Carlos Saura, the film has precious little use for critical commentary. It's strictly of the "It came to me in a dream" school–and as such things go, it's worth a few laughs.
This much of the story is true: In 1824, when he was already an old man, Goya went into exile from Spain, which had become uncomfortable for him with the restoration of the monarchy, and settled in France, where he spent the last four years of his life. With him were his much younger companion, Leocadia Zorilla, and their little daughter. Goya in Bordeaux takes shape in this setting as a spiral of the ailing old man's memories–which he sometimes narrates as "secret, secret" stories, told to the 12-year-old daughter, and sometimes relives as dreams or hallucinations.
"Where am I?" croaks Rabal as his first words, waking in bed in a bleaching light. He plods to the window in his nightshirt, looking remarkably like Goya's self-portrait at this age: more bullfrog than man, with a wide, pouting lower lip and a great whiskery pouch of a neck. Down one side of his nose runs a deep cleft, left by some act of violence; a puckered scar complicates his left cheek. "Where am I?" he repeats, as the first instance of the dialogue's excess. "Who put me here?" In response, the room's color changes from red to blue, lights flash and a maja in a black mantilla materializes, only to disappear immediately through the door. Goya follows and soon finds himself chasing down one of those glowing white corridors with chessboard floor tiles that are standard equipment in the hallucinated-memory game.