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An Étude in Art [Yvonne Coughlan, UK, 2020]

A struggling writer, a dance student, and a renowned musician are the subjects in this complex experimental drama. Through fractured visions, director Yvonne Coughlan delves deep into the terrifying experiences and overwhelming challenges artists face during their creative processes. Shot in mostly black-and-white and in the style of the 1920s silent era, this short was created as a response to Liszt/Paganini’s ‘Etude No. 6 in A Minor - Tema e Variazioni’.

The film asks more questions than it answers. It opens with a title card questioning, “Can a dream make sense?” and the title cards that follow are often warnings to the artists making this something of a cautionary tale, though not without hints of humour. Creative artists may make their own parallels in the weird, unnerving imagery that’s on display. Editor David Leen does a great job with emphasizing the dreamlike (sometimes nightmarish) aesthetics. His mystifying editing warps the viewing experience into something surreal and entrancing. An early moment in which two characters have out-of-body experiences is a particular highlight.

All of the performers are wonderfully expressive. Each of them excellently evokes the performances of silent movie actors, especially Aislinn Hegarty as dance student Willow. One brief but crucial dance sequence is brilliantly aligned with the writer’s increasing frustration creating a melancholic visual metaphor. As there is a lot crammed into just six minutes, it’s very easy to get confused by the chaos onscreen. The quick cuts and fragmented presentation can be puzzling. This is more of an exploration rather than an explanation of artists’ dreams and fears. Nevertheless, the final shot is powerful and hypnotising.

At times it boggles the mind, but the undeniably remarkable imagery is hallucinatory and often chilling. Head-scratching yet thought provoking, wonderful yet alarming, An Étude in Art is a spectacle to behold.


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