After an arresting opening that suggests the young Alma Schnindler has the singular power to literally light up a room in bohemian 1901 Vienna, back at home she must endure a mild scolding from her flirtatious piano teacher for embroidering and over-enhancing her music. Alma cringes at this criticism, but other than this fleeting suggestion of artistic boldness and daring, Levy and Beresford provide no indication of who Alma is and what, if anything, drives her.
An envied member of an artists' clique (with the implication that she has been intimate with painter Gustav Klimt), Alma is introduced by her friends to stoic composer Gustav Mahler (Jonathan Price) and she promptly tells him what is wrong with his music. Naturally, he falls in love with her and, after a feeble protest to her mother that Mahler demands she subordinate her own interests to devote herself to him, Alma apparently willingly takes up the duties of wife and mother. She dotes well enough on her two daughters, suffers when one dies prematurely, then drifts into an affair with architect Walter Gropious (played by an appropriately rigid actor) after meeting him at a health sanitarium. When Mahler discovers the betrayal, Alma harshly accuses him of having stifled her throughout the years. This fury comes as something of a surprise, as there has been nothing beforehand to suggest this extreme mounting pique other than her momentary pre-marriage reservation. From there, it is all downhill as Alma proceeds to get involved with painter Oskar Kokoscka (a shorn Vincent Perez) who, after painting the work from which the film's title is taken, marches off to WW I in a huff when Alma refuses to marry him. Alma then marries Gropious and ends finally with poet and writer Franz Werfel--unironically, we're told in closing credits, ending her days in Hollywood.
Along with the inability to capture the essence of Alma's fiery nature (was she or was she not an actual muse to the brilliant men with whom she consorted?), Levy and Beresford are also unable to carry off a smooth marriage of history and biography, making the former almost invasive and distracting. Wynters, with her appealingly sensuous yet intelligent face, tries hard to imbue Alma with human dimension but is let down repeatedly by a shallowness of the script. Beresford provides a marvelously detailed look at old-world Vienna, yet stumbles badly with his characterization, providing only the most fleeting glimpse into what by all rights should have been one of the century's most exciting women. Starring Sarah Wynter, Jonathan Price and Vincent Perez. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Written by Marilyn Levy. Produced by Evzen Kolar and Lawrence Levy. A Paramount Classics release. Biographical drama. Unrated. Running time: 99 min