A Portrait of Love review: behind every great man there is … another one

Molly Reynolds’ intimate documentary uses the home movies of Roberto Meza Mont to shine a spotlight onto his life with his late partner, artist Craig Ruddy.
A Portrait of Love still.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised the following review includes the name of a deceased person.

If someone asked you if you’d like to watch a couple’s home movies for 90 minutes, and not even really home movies, but just the results of one half of the couple turning on his smartphone every so often and filming whatever is in front of him, you’d be forgiven for suddenly remembering you’ve left the stove on, or your hair really needs a shampoo…

But A Portrait of Love has a few other elements to recommend it. First, there are the characters of the couple involved: the award-winning Australian artist Craig Ruddy and his long-term partner Roberto Meza Mont. Vibrant and attractive, they’re both undeniably photogenic and appealing documentary subjects. But added to that is the foreknowledge of how this will end.

In 2022, Archibald Prize-winner Ruddy became one of the country’s most notable art world luminaries to die from COVID-related issues. And so we watch the entire film with this very much in mind – a textbook case of waiting for the shoe to drop. How could a man who seems so alive and passionate, a man who is mostly seen in the film barefoot and shirtless, embracing with the utmost zest art, life and all they have to offer, be felled by such an insidious thief of breath?

It gives a whole other layer of poignancy and significance to everything we see, as we know how swiftly and tragically it’s about to come to an end.

Ruddy had suffered from a life threatening illness as a child, which may account for his susceptibility to the virus, but on the evidence of this documentary he was a remarkably vital and physically active person – a genuinely lithe and muscular artist who used his whole body in his work and, when he wasn’t painting or drawing, spent his time dancing, gardening and living life absolutely to the full with his partner of two decades, Mont.

Read: Archibald-winning artist Craig Ruddy dies from COVID-19

It is Mont who captured all the footage for this engrossing documentary, which has then been shaped and massaged into a finished film by Molly Reynolds. Reynolds is, of course, the partner and longtime collaborator of the Dutch-Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer, and David Gulpilil – the subject of Ruddy’s Archibald-winning portrait – was also the subject of Reynolds’ own filmic portrait of the legendary performer, My Name is Gulpilil (2021). So there is synergy, understanding and clearly deep trust between all of these creatives.

Mont and Ruddy were also evidently a much loved and gregarious couple, with the former appearing to be the most extroverted of the two, encouraging and nurturing his artist partner. The film begins with a monologue in which he describes their original meeting in a Sydney club and there are various scenes of the parties, social events and club visits that peppered their lives.

‘I was a little bird and I was looking at the other birds flying. I wished I could fly, high and confident, like them. Suddenly I saw this strong beautiful bird. He looked at me and he said “do you want to fly?”’ we hear Mont say, over a shot of a gleeful Ruddy beaming at the camera and jumping high into the air to dive bomb their small circular pool on a deck overlooking the glorious Byron Bay hinterland.

A Portrait of Love… and of an artist

But the original intent behind Mont’s filming is a little unclear and, as you may expect with such footage, there is shot after shot of people gurning or grinning as the camera comes past them and they suddenly feel put on the spot and have to react. Or we have Mont and Ruddy in a car en route to an exhibition installation or opening and Mont shares his thoughts about the day, or the weather, or something equally mundane.

And to be honest, this could all get a little same/same. Mont is not a cinematographer and understandably some of the camerawork is a little on the rough-and-ready side. And this is one of the main points of difference between A Portrait of Love and the recent documentary Bromley: Light After Dark – Sean McDonald’s engrossing film about another charismatic Australian artist supported to a huge degree by his partner – David Bromley and his wife Yuge.

But, and it’s a significant but, the times when Mont just turns his camera on Ruddy at work are truly illuminating. And like McDonald’s Bromley doco, this is when A Portrait of Love really makes its mark. As an insight into Ruddy’s artistic process and practice it’s invaluable.

For Ruddy was a creative person in every fibre of his being. In the film we see the way he approaches his larger canvases – with huge swathes of paint, and wild circular motions, tearing through charcoal or paint at a rate of knots and throwing everything at the work. It is fascinating to watch. His was an almost chaotic approach, with seemingly buckets of colours, various materials and tools, and even his own smudging and tweaking hands – almost engulfing the piece in a swirling, whirling mass of abstract creativity that only later calms and reveals an astonishing portrait of Bruce Pascoe, Cathy Freeman or Warwick Thornton. Or, indeed, one of the copious female nudes that made up a significant percentage of his oeuvre. For a gay man, his love for the female body seemed almost visceral and a beautiful thing to see.

A Portrait of Love is showing in a series of one-off screenings in June, with Q+As with Roberto Meza Mont and Molly Roberts.

Dendy Newtown, Sydney, Monday 10 June
Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Tuesday 11 June
Deckchair Cinema, Darwin, Friday 21 June
The Byron Theatre, Byron Bay, Saturday 22 June

Madeleine Swain is ArtsHub’s managing editor. Originally from England where she trained as an actor, she has over 25 years’ experience as a writer, editor and film reviewer in print, television, radio and online. She is also currently Vice Chair of JOY Media.