Finding Vivian Maier – film review

Wow. What a documentary. Cancel your planned trip to every other film. Finding Vivian Maier proves what I had always suspected. “Truth is stranger than fiction” is a nonsense saw. When “truth” is this strange, you are magically, transportedly unsure what is true and what fictive or un-determinable. Isn’t that the power and point of Citizen Kane, the greatest “truth”-based film of all? It is certainly the spell of this doc about a nanny revealed, after her death, to have been a world-class photographer.

Be grateful for geeks who receive gifts. John Maloof, who co-directed with Charlie Siskel, is the pop-eyed proselyte who found the material. The auction-house negatives Maloof bought on a whim, plus the crate of film rolls he later chased down in a Maier-connected house, proved a treasury of street scenes: portraits of the dispossessed, eye-grabbing urban vistas, startling Dadaist tableaux trouvés . . . 

The gallery shows began and so did Maloof’s hunt. Who was this woman? Was she just the French-extracted New Yorker she appeared to be: a gauche, pathologically private spinster who took nanny and housekeeper jobs? Ex-employers line up in turn for interview, like willing firing squad victims. Blink; tell all; bang, you’re off; though some come back for more, wanting one more chew on the mystery bullet.

Maier toted her camera round town with the kids in tow. The kids weren’t a priority – the photo gigs were – and one child, now grown up, recalls darker nannying transgressions. As the portrait builds, so do the bewitching perplexities, including a French accent denounced by one “expert” as fake. All we know for certain is the power of the picture-taking. The life intrigues; the art endures. To cite another, surer saw: Ars longa, vita brevis.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.