I adored Nicolas de Crécy’s Glacial Period, the first in NBM’s translations of graphic novels created in conjunction with the Louvre. It was funky and imaginative and had interesting things to say about art and the value of cultural history. I keep hoping the subsequent offerings in the series will offer the same feeling of discovery, but none has reached similar heights for me. I don’t regret buying and reading any of them, but I’m not in a rush to read any of them again.
That state of mind persists with The Sky over the Louvre, co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière and Bernar Yslaire and illustrated by Yslaire. It follows key players in the French Revolution during the earliest days of the Louvre’s tenure as a public institution. There’s fascinating potential to explore the intersection of art and politics and individual express in a time of national turmoil. Carrière and Yslaire take advantage of that intermittently, but the story is structured oddly. It veers from intensely personal to dryly polemic without any predictable rhythm or apparent design.
Carrière is a legendary screenwriter (The Tin Drum, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), but it seems his skills as a storyteller aren’t portable to the graphic-novel form. The script he’s developed with Yslaire relies heavily on bits of expository text that open and sometimes close individual chapters. They provide context and valuable information, but they seem less like crafted prose than captions. Dialogue leans toward the weighty and stylized, and individual voices tend to get lost. The angelic young muse sounds very much like Robespierre, which doesn’t seem right.
Yslaire’s art is certainly striking, particularly the limited palette of colors he uses to accent the pages. His characters have a strangely cadaverous look, even looking decayed from time to time. It helps articulate the contradiction between revolutionary ideals and the men who execute them for their own purposes. It’s often delightful to see these corpses talk about the corruption of the aristocracy as they pursue their own contradictory, hypocritical agendas. There are some stunning tableaus, and the panels featuring more sinister, shadowy content are wonderfully expressive. I also admire the way reproductions of art from the period, particularly portraits by Jacques-Louis David, a key player in the narrative. They’re beautiful for their own virtues, and they pop, but they fold in to the overall narrative well.
Undeniably awkward as the historical content is, there are some genuinely gripping sequences, perhaps because they’re mostly invention. David, ordered to create masterworks for events celebrating the new Republic, allows himself to be waylaid by a beautiful young man who challenges David’s revolutionary principles. The boy, Jules, is barely a character, speaking almost exclusively in convenient metaphors, but David’s reaction to him offers the most compelling, charged moments in the comic. Sequences where David tries to force Jules into the posture of a young martyr of the revolution – for purely artistic purposes, surely – have an effective creepiness to them.
Maybe the whole book should have been invented rather than trying to adhere to the specifics of history. Those parts of the book are certainly more successful than the speechifying.