Jean-Marc Calvet's life is so fantastical that you couldn't have made it up

Jean-Marc Calvet could be the inspiration for the phrase, 'fact is stranger than fiction'. He has been a mafia bodyguard, a club owner, a night-squad policeman, a Foreign Legion soldier and now enjoying success as an award winning painter (whose work fetches prices starting at $20,000). Really. 

Showing in the QFT as part of its limited UK theatrical run, the success of Dominic Allan’s documentary Calvet stems from allowing Calvet himself to drive the feature. His confessions are frank, animated and brutal.

The film begins with the artist explaining how he had ‘done everything he could to be a total bastard and succeeded’. He abandoned his partner and young son in France to go and work as a mobster’s bodyguard in Miami.

Soon finding himself on the run with over $600,000 of stolen money, a terrifying dark tale of drugs and violence unfurls. Calvet was seeking out self-destruction in order to drown out his past transgressions.

Calvet's on-screen presence is captivating. He peels back layer after layer of his life, charismatically acting out the events he describes. Yet charming though he is, even cheery at points, his story is one of heartbreak. This reaches a climax as the artist describes how paranoia and self-loathing led him to almost kill himself during a three month long drug and alcohol binge in his South American fortress.

His salvation came through the discovery of some tins of paint. Afterwards he turned every aspect of his home (and himself) into an artwork. 

The final third of the film concentrates on Calvet’s current struggle. Now settled in Nicaragua, with a new family, he desperately seeks out the son he abandoned. This section is a real emotional rollercoaster, with touching sequences of Calvet seeing photographs of his son for the first time (he only had one small photo in his possession), and quite literally scouring the South of France for traces of information.

When viewing the film, occasionally one may doubt the truth of what Calvet is saying. His story is so fantastical, after all. The artist's blunt honesty, however, makes him convincing. And the images of Calvet’s paint-covered house after his epiphany are displayed and are very real indeed.

It is obvious that Calvet feels a genuine need to paint for the sake of his own sanity. The artworks seen on screen are giant multi-coloured interpretations of what goes on in the artist's often-frenzied mind.

Allan’s film is well shot, not to mention smoothly edited for such a complicated story. The director’s greatest success, however, is the trust that he has earned from Calvet. It allowed the artist to open the floodgates and let his telling of the story consume the film.

There are minor gripes – overuse of time-lapse photography to break up the interview sequences begins to grate – but on the whole this is a profound story of a remarkable man.