Cravan vs Cravan should really be called Cravan vs Nicotra, as this is a bio-documentary in which not one but two men jostle for director Lacuesta’s attention. In theory, this purports to be a profile of Arthur Cravan: a Swiss-born nephew of Oscar Wilde who achieved renown as both a dadaist poet a talented boxer, travelling the globe before abruptly disappearing in the Gulf of Mexico in 1918. In practice, however, the film is soon hijacked by modern-day pugilist Frank Nicotra, a former European light-heavyweight champion turned poet, novelist and moviemaker, whose interest in Cravan spurs him to piece together fragments of his idol’s life by revisiting Cravan’s old haunts in Paris, Barcelona and beyond.

Lacuesta follows Nicotra’s progress as he interviews a broad gallery of subjects, including Cravan’s prickly biographer Maria Luisa Borras, Cravan’s distant relative Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson), and even a nonagenarian Spaniard who claims to have been present in 1917 when Cravan fought his ill-advised exhibition bout against the then-reigning world heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson. Lacuesta intersperses all this with a series of black-and-white recreations of key incidents in Cravans life, with Nicotra appearing in the Cravan role despite the light-heavyweight Nicotra being a completely different size and shape to the outsize Cravan, who these days would probably be considered a super-heavy.

Nicotra hogs even more screen time thanks to a bafflingly generous selection of video-footage featuring his own ring exploits – we see him knocking out James Cook in one round to claim the Euro title, with the killer punch replayed in slow-motion just in case we’ve missed the point. There’s no doubting Nicotra’s intense identification with Cravan: at one point Lacuesta even shows him having his photo taken to recreate a famous image of the boxer-poet, smugly resplendent in fur-trimmed coat and ornate veil. Lacuesta seems content to allow Nicotra to indulge such bizarre whims, presenting them without editorial comment.

It’s also unfortunate that, despite a lengthy 100-minute running time, Lacuesta and/or Nicotra couldn’t examine how some of Cravan’s comments (“If you can be a brute, remain like one”), his Nietzschean swagger, and his connections with the Futurists – who would soon after provide spurious intellectual respectability to the nascent Fascist movement – take on a somewhat alarming aspect with the benefit of hindsight. But Cravan is very much a product of his times; indeed, he was on friendly or unfriendly terms with virtually every player among Paris’s then-booming intellectual and artistic community, sitting as a model for many leading painters from various movements.

Such was Cravan’s fame, and so mysterious his demise, it is surprising that he’s so seldom mentioned nowadays. Despite this, at each stop on his journey Nicotra does keep handily stumbling across groups of people who are remarkably well-informed about Cravan’s activities. Running into that nonagenarian fight fan, meanwhile, does seem an astonishing stroke of luck … and isn’t the oldster suspiciously youthful for somebody who must be pushing 95? What, meanwhile, are we to make of comments such as “the only way to understand Cravan is as a work of fiction,” “none of his fights are documented” and “I rather doubt Cravan existed”?

At times, the shadowy Cravan does seem like a composite being, perhaps conjured up by Smiths songwriter Morrissey – a fanatical Wilde devotee whose interest in boxing (or rather boxers) is also well known. There are several precedents for such a “faked” biography: William Boyd and David Bowie briefly conned the art world into thinking they’d discovered a lost master called Nat Tate a few years back – and, if Cravan were to be a figment of Lacuesta and Nicotra’s imaginations, then Cravan Vs Cravan would take on tantalising extra levels as a rumination on fame, creativity and the role of hero-worship.

But further investigations indicate that Arthur Cravan was, in fact, 100 per cent real. Which leaves Cravan vs Cravan a somewhat unsatisfactory contribution to his legend — there’s no real attempt, for instance, to come up with any kind of explanation for Cravan’s disappearance, with much more time and effort spent on the tangential issue of whether or not Cravan was the painter who signed his canvases ‘Edouard Archinard.’ Cravan even published a magazine, Maintenant, in which all of the contributors were in fact pseudonyms for Cravan himself, who once boasted “I am all men, all animals.”

This monomania is, one suspects, no small part of the attraction for Nicotra, whose quest for Cravan rapidly takes on the air of an elaborate ego trip (“this is my story” he brags, early on). The arty recreations are very ill-advised: they pad the movie out to its rather bloated length, and Lacuesta seems as uncomfortable directing semi-fictional vignettes as Nicotra does acting in them. The director achieves much more striking images with his smooth present-day documentary footage, his camera gliding through Père Lachaise cemetery, a Lausanne cocktail party, and, most photogenic of all, the ruined stadium in which the Johnson-Cravan bout took place. The surviving spectator looks on, Cravan blurring into Nicotra in monochrome memory – as vivid, fragile and unreliable as celluloid itself.

Neil Young
23rd February, 2003
(seen on video, Sunderland, 22nd February)

CRAVAN VS CRAVAN : [5/10] : Spain 2002 : Isaki LACUESTA : 100m : 

official website :
Frank Nicotra’s website :