Just because (in definition) a documentary presents real life, hopefully without bias or unfair manipulation, doesn’t mean it can’t tell a good story. Calvet proves this with its compelling almost narrative-like true story of a man with a very troubled past full of mistakes which he is now trying his best to make up for.
The documentary follows Jean Marc Calvet, a French painter now living in Nicaragua with his wife and her deaf-mute daughter. It (or rather he) tells the story of his life before he moved there which includes being heavily addicted to drugs, stealing money and escaping from a gangster who hired him as security and, primarily, his abandonment of his former wife and only son.
Calvet invites you to look beyond what you see on the surface. The man himself is rugged, covered in tattoos and generally intimidating to look at. But, as they say, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover as he has a wholly fascinating, powerful and often downright heartbreaking story to tell.
Director Dominic Allan (Lonely Planet) tells that story with a lot of visual flourish – this is one of the most visually driven documentaries I’ve ever seen – with stylised intercuts of Calvet’s highly unusual paintings (which now go for tens of thousands of dollars) and recreations of what he’s describing. Also we often physically travel with Calvet to the real locations from his past, most of which are now totally changed, which gives a sort of nostalgic energy to the film. One segment that’s particularly affecting is when we visit Calvet’s former house where he literally spent three months locked away, taking drugs and eventually discovering his love – and more importantly his understanding – of painting as an art form.
What makes Calvet all the more compelling is the titular man himself. He has an interesting look to begin with but presents himself with a weird combination of confidence and vulnerability that allows to you to connect with his story and what he’s telling you at any given moment. He’s such a character, so to speak, that it really does feel like he’s the star of the film and not just the subject.
Calvet is a brilliant example of the basic power a documentary can have, taking an interesting story and telling it in a original and off-kilter way which, bizarrely, works very well in the film’s favor to both compliment and enhance the real life tale.