The Leunig Fragments review – portrait of the cartoonist is a quasi-poetic cop-out

Reluctant subject and tentative director unite in a documentary that gives little insight into the cartoonist who ‘weaponised whimsy’

Watching the director Kasimir Burgess’ documentary about the veteran cartoonist Michael Leunig left me conflicted. I was impressed by several aspects of this film, including its poignant and heavy-hearted qualities, its unusual air of melancholia. But damn, it was a frustrating experience – revolving around a subject who is so private, and so unwilling to explore key areas of his life and legacy, that one wonders why he agreed to participate in the first place and what he thought the film would achieve.

The Leunig Fragments is more self-reflexive than most portraits of artists. Like the director Shirley Clarke’s classic 1967 experimental doco Portrait of Jason, its title indicates a limited impression of its subject, suggesting a glimpse – or in this instance a series of glimpses – rather than a full picture.

Leunig is obviously ill at ease, acutely aware that he is out of his element and not in direct control of the filmmaking experience. An early scene in a cafe depicts the cartoonist reflecting on how he would feel about a documentary being made about him, responding that such a production would be a concern – but no representation would be perfect.

Inside his studio, Leunig observes the filmmaker collecting shots and inquires about depth of field: a way of masking his nervousness, perhaps, or maybe making a subtle power play, reminding Burgess that he understands all too well the language of visual storytelling. The first major indication of the film’s limitations occurs when Leunig reminisces about the deaths of his mother and father, reflecting that despite loving them both deeply he didn’t attend either of their funerals.

leunig sits outside a bookshop at a signing table
Leunig is obviously ill at ease, acutely aware that he is out of his element. Photograph: Madman

Why? The subject is evasive and speaks in tantalisingly vague terms, clearly reluctant to explore emotional wounds. Burgess – perhaps out of sensitivity, or respect, or in fear of putting Leunig off (at one point the artist ducks out of the filmmaking process for 10 months) – doesn’t push him on it, setting in motion a documentary in which the filmmaker continuously runs up against walls erected by the subject.

Leunig comes across as an insecure and emotionally complex, introverted person. He is most comfortable discussing recollections of a distant past; the childhood experiences he says “bring you into consciousness” – such as planting trees, feeling dirt and the sight of his mother in a summer cotton dress. These recollections are visually recreated in sepia-like images tinged in the aesthetics of old photographs. Burgess often uses Leunig’s words to trigger visual connections, which at their height take on a semi-poetic feeling.

Often this approach leads to short, compact statements of pathos. In this sense not entirely dissimilar to Leunig’s artwork, which is aptly described by his friend Phillip Adams as “weaponised whimsy”. The Leunig Fragments peaks when it finds ways to visually explore the subject’s expression of difficult feelings – such as a segment towards the end in which he reflects on loss and mortality, memorably incorporating images of the subject lying on earthy brown ground outside, a drone camera capturing him from above.

Other times, however, this approach feels like a quasi-poetic cop-out, evading the big questions. Nowhere is this evasiveness more apparent than in the film’s consideration of Leunig’s controversial anti-vaccination statements, which form a grey cloud above the artist’s legacy.

Leunig stands by the ocean
The director often uses Leunig’s words to trigger visual connections, which at their height take on a semi-poetic feeling. Photograph: Madman

It’s an important topic for this documentary, speaking to the ability of cartoonists to make power political statements: in this instance, evidence of that weaponisation of whimsy. It also it gives the filmmaker opportunity to show critical perspective. To – as they sometimes say in journalism courses, or at least they did in my university years – “fall out of love with your subject”.

Sadly, the director ticks a box marked “anti-vax controversy” and very quickly moves on. Burgess inserts a screenshot of a tweet from Hannah Gadsby about Leunig, with a blurred out profanity on it, then screenshots of other rancorous Twitter users venting their spleen, undermining criticism against Leunig by suggesting that hey, see, look, everyone is feral online! That feels like a very Leunig-esque argument, given the artist’s obvious disdain towards modern phenomena such as smartphones, and the way he sometimes makes general and emotionally exploitative statements against them.

There’s brief footage of Leunig half-heartedly addressing the anti-vaccination controversy plucked from TV programs broadcast years ago, but it’s over in a heartbeat. The director doesn’t sit down with his subject and flesh the issue out. Whether Leunig prohibited it or not, the end result is the same: a documentary that comes across as toothless and severely limited.

To make matters worse, at around the same point in the film, the director cuts an interviewee telling us that Leunig has “strength of character”, then another describing him as a “provocateur”. How many people (they are usually men) have, over the years, used the status of “provocateur” to hurl all sorts of grenades at people, and who then respond with variations of “how rude!” when people hurl some back? Burgess even has the gall to cut to the artist talking about “moral responsibility”.

Part of the problem is that documentaries made in this style, that follow around their subjects and attempt to delve inside their psyche, require the subject’s consent. With that consent comes a power balance that almost always puts the filmmaker at a disadvantage. It is certainly true, however, that this film does what it says on the can. For better or, more often, for worse, it is a collection of fragments.

The Leunig Fragments is in cinemas from 13 February


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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