The writer/director/editor, Jimmy Bontatibus, is a 24-year old American who has spent much of his young adulthood making films in Europe, where he briefly attended Bela Tarr’s film school. His unusual career arc explains why this movie feels like a bridge between continents and eras even if it wasn’t intended as such. Like Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of “The Unbearable Lightness Being,” a work it sometimes evokes, “A Muse” feels American and European at the same time. It’s the kind of movie where gorgeous young creative Europeans talk about art and politics in relation to their lives, while also fretting about their relationships, which are bound up in the art they’re trying to make.
Jumping between timelines in a non-linear, often impressionistic way, “A Muse” is set mainly in Germany (mainly Hamburg) and Romania (Bucharest and the small town of Cata), with side trips into 1961 Paris (via documentary footage of an artist that one of the characters is fixated on). All the narrative strands pass through the character of Adrian (Rares Andrici of “A Graduation”), a filmmaker and artist who is as manipulative and inaccessible as he is cultured and handsome.
Adrian is defined against, and by, two women. In 2018 Hamburg, Adrian casts a spell over Mia (Herasha Musagic of Bontatibus’ debut film “Life of Flowers”), a bisexual dancer who fears she’ll never live up to the standards of her famous actress mother. Adrian invites Mia to join his troupe of actor-dancer-artist types (several women and one man) who meet regularly to explore how art mirrors and informs life. They do this by creating false profiles on Tinder, bringing their dates to the same bar on the same night, then telling the troupe what happened and what they learned about themselves. Eventually Mia and others in the group have misgivings about Adrian, who starts to seem more like a cult leader than a teacher or impresario. He even interviews his pupils on camera in a half-searching, half-invasive way, in a room with lighting reminiscent of an icy Canadian horror film where bad things happen to people’s bodies.
This material is intercut with the 2015 Romanian timeline, which observes Adrian in a relationship with another filmmaker, Bianca (Miriam Rizea of John Boorman’s “Queen and Country”). Bianca is directing a documentary that invites citizens to imagine the the future of their country, with Adrian serving as cameraman and collaborator. This timeline’s Adrian can be mysterious and difficult, but he doesn’t have the Heathcliff-on-the-moors vibe of the Adrian that Mia meets three years later. Much of the 2015 timeline follows Bianca as she tries to understand why Adrian is reluctant to have sex with her and keeps disappearing for hours at a time. The answer turns out to be just what you’d expect. But this part of “A Muse” is less a portrait of a young man in denial about his sexuality than an examination of how artists use art to hide from themselves, stop others from seeing who they really are, and inflict their pain on the world.