The Academy of Muses , the newest feature from Spanish filmmaker José Luis Guerín, begins with a self-synopsis: "An educational experience with professor Raffaele Pinto filmed by J.L. Guerín." In the opening scenes that follow we see Raffaele Pinto, a professor of philology, at the front of a lecture theatre, discoursing on his theories about the importance of the female muse for the classical poets. We hear names like Orpheus, Dante, Beatrice, and Héloïse. And we listen as his students, who are almost all women, respond with their own arguments—about patriarchy, individualism, and desire. It is a torrent of classicist theory, yet the simple rhythm of Guerín's editing—cutting back and forth from professor to students—makes it clear that these intellectual discourses are also an outlining of a particular dynamic of power.
The female students orbit around the professor, who readily plays the part of a planet who defines their gravitational fields. They come to him for advice, not only about his class, but about their personal lives, their anxieties and their relationships. For the first part of the film, these conversations, usually framed by a window or a glistening car windshield, play out as continuations or personalized footnotes to their philosophical discussions in the classroom. But, as the film progresses, the incompatibility of the professor's ideals with the real lives that the women lead begins to wreak emotional havoc on everyone except the man at their center.
In a pivotal scene, two of the women—one young and fresh-faced, the other older and filled with doubts—meet in a corner cafe. At first their conversation is innocuous, they are friends, but we know from previous scenes that the younger woman has become the professor's mistress, and that the older woman is the professor's wife. Their conversation quickly implodes into a mess of jealousy and personal defenses, until eventually their friendship is permanently severed by the line, "You're just another chapter in a novel that will never be written."
It is a scene of pure melodrama, but, like so many of his heroes (see: Ozu, Ford, Chaplin, et al.) Guerín has made a career out of transfiguring these melodramatic moments into something more complex and dialectical than simple expressions of emotion. This image of two women lost between art and life, between theory and reality, is a microcosm of a much larger work whose complexities seem inexhaustible, and whose beauty and simple poetry makes it one of the most impressive films of the year.