New York Stories (1989)

Nick Nolte plays artist Lionel Dobie
New York Stories

'In Life Lessons, written by Richard Price, and very loosely based on Fydor Dostoevsky's short novel The Gambler, Nick Nolte plays Lionel Dobie, an acclaimed abstract painter who is unable to paint before a major gallery exhibition of his new work, and Rosanna Arquette is Paulette, his apprentice/assistant and former lover. Lionel is still infatuated with her, but Paulette wants only his tutelage, which makes things difficult since they live in the same studio-loft, where most of the action in the movie takes place. While Lionel procrastinates, unable to complete the paintings that are scheduled for an upcoming solo exhibition of his, Paulette dates other people, including a performance artist played by Steve Buscemi and a painter played by Jesse Borrego.

These deliberate provocations on Paulette's part cause Lionel to get insanely jealous—and fuel his creativity. Both Lionel and Paulette, it becomes clear, have been using each other: Lionel using her sexually, Paulette using him as a means of entree to the higher spheres of the New York social and art scene. But now that their relationship is no longer sexual, Paulette wants to leave the mess that has become her life and move back in with her parents. Lionel, however, persuades her to stay because New York is where a painter needs to be, even though it is unclear whether Paulette is even a particularly good painter. Throughout this turmoil in their relationship, Lionel pours his anxiety and repressed passion into his work. Paintings around the studio show visual metaphors from relations past: stormy skies, burning bridges, and tormented clowns. There are several Pagliacci references if one looks closely. Lionel, although a lion in the art world, becomes a clown in the eyes of the women in his life. Eventually, Paulette leaves when she has had enough, but not before Lionel is on his way to completing all the paintings he needs for his exhibit.

As he is completing the final piece, Lionel suddenly realizes that he needs the emotional turmoil of his destructive relationships in order to fuel his art—without the one, he can't produce the other. In the last scene, while at the art exhibit, Lionel meets another attractive young woman who is a struggling painter—by the end of the gallery opening, he has persuaded her to become his assistant, and potentially his lover, beginning the cycle anew.'
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