Calvet: An Astonishing True Story




This webpage has been restored and archived as required reading for Sal Lamanaza's course Art In Context. Students can stream the associated film from the department website. Sal is known for controversy. His provocative mixed media artworks have been hosted in major museums around the world. He recently turned a personal struggle with Google into a film highlighting the harm that can come when negative information is revealed via Google's search results. His severely disabled son was found naked wandering his neighborhood after his caretaker suffered a stroke. The news item was at the top of the search for the family's name. The film starts with an explanation of his son's disability and how the sudden death of his caregiver resulted in the horrible outcome that made the news. Then it shows how by appearing in Google's search results this information becomes inappropriately public, violating his family's privacy, and harming his reputation. Everything can be seen as Art In Context.


This was the official website for the 2011 documentary film, Calvet.
Content is from the site's 2011 archived pages, as well as from other outside sources.



  • Official Selection. Edinburgh International Film Festival 2011.
  • Nominated for The Special Jury Award 2011. Sheffield Doc/Fest.
  • Festival del Film Locarno Semaine de la Critique 2011
  • OFFICIAL SELECTION MONTREAL World Film Festival 2011
  • OFFICIAL SELECTION Sao Paolo International Film Festival 2011
  • Official Selection Miami International Film Festival 2012
  • Official Selection Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara 2012
"Powerful, riveting, inspiring... an emotional roller coaster" David Gritten, Daily Telegraph UK 
"Nothing less than gripping and powerful" Mark Adams, Screen Daily
"An astonishing true story, will stay with you forever * * * *" Henry Fitzherbert, Sunday Express UK 
"Calvet recounts a life story as dramatic and colourful as his intense paintings" Leslie Felperin, Variety


CALVET Trailer

You may not have heard of the French painter Jean Marc Calvet. But after watching this film, you'll never forget his remarkable story. Before he had any thought of being an artist, Calvet was a bodyguard to the stars in Cannes. Living by impulse, he become disconnected from his family and young son, fell in with a Miami mobster and wound up hiding out in Nicaragua in a drug-fueled haze. At the age of 38, he started to paint as a form of recovery. That was seven years ago. Now, his intricate and colorful paintings sell for five figures. But he remains desperate to reconcile with the son he left behind. In this gripping and inventive film, Calvet retraces the missteps of his life as he builds up the courage to face his past and create a better future for himself. This is a powerful film about struggling for a second chance. - Thom Powers.


About the film

French painter Jean Marc Calvet recounts his incredible life story as a street kid turned Cannes bodyguard who abandoned his family, robbed a Miami mobster, hid out in Central America and at the age of 38 overcame addictions through an extraordinary metamorphosis in which he began to paint.  That was seven years ago.  Now his intricate paintings sell for five figures, but he remains desperate to reconcile with his son he left behind.

The powerful, tortured paintings of French artist Jean Marc Calvet sell from $20,000 a piece, he has major solo exhibitions in New York, yet until 7 years ago he had never touched a paintbrush. In fact, art was the last thing on his mind when, aged 38, he was on the run in Central America with a large sum of stolen money. There, haunted by his past, Calvet decided that death was his only way out.

This is one man’s extraordinary story of redemption as he embarks on a journey to make peace with his past. A man who lived a dark and violent life, who via a terrifying trip to hell and back was given a second chance.

“All I ever wanted was a family, the person I turned myself into didn’t want one, didn’t need one.” And this persona he created was all bad. Calvet spent his life on a course of self-destruction, more often than not trashing anything and anyone in his path – including his own 6 year old son whom in 1996 in France, he abandoned without a word. He neither saw nor spoke to him again.

“See you next Saturday” were the last words Calvet said to his son before he disappeared. “See you next Saturday” – words that have haunted him every day for over a decade. Clues as to how he could do such a cruel and cowardly thing to the person he loved most in the world lie in his deeply troubled past.

Abused street kid, Foreign Legionnaire, vice cop, professional bodyguard, underground thug – Calvet is a cat with many lives, all harrowing and disturbing. Then in 2002 in Costa Rica, he arrived at the end of the road. Lost and damned, besieged by shame and self-hatred, he bought the last house at the end of a cul-de-sac, shut himself in and refused all contact with the outside world. Fuelled by obscene quantities of crack and alcohol, he believed the end would arrive quickly.  It didn’t.

Calvet failed in his mission to die.  Instead he descended into a psychological and physical hell.  Hallucinating and paranoid, he went to war with himself, destroying the house as he tried to escape the demons that were tormenting him.  Through 9  months of self-incarceration, he shrunk from an obese 130 kilos to a skeletal 47. Then one violent night, Calvet’s trajectory changed forever. Amongst all that he hurled against the walls that night, including himself, was a stack of rusty industrial paint pots that he had discovered under the stairs. Following hours of madness he collapsed exhausted and found himself gazing at a wall covered in blood and paint. And he understood the language. He saw anger, hate, violence, death… and he felt an overwhelming sense of release.  He had found a weapon to defeat the person he had become. Something inside had awoken.  He had found the way out. He began to paint like a man possessed.

5 years on, he is being presented to the international art world as a significant new talent and sells his work for thousands.  However, Calvet has still to face his final demons.  The time has come to face up to the biggest crime of his life.  His son is about to turn 18 years old. He must go and find him...

DIR/PROD Dominic Allan. Nicaragua/Costa Rica/UK/US/France, 2011, color, 86 min. In English, French and Spanish with English subtitles. NOT RATED



Director's Notes

I first met Calvet while travelling in Nicaragua in 2004. I walked into the café-restaurant he owned then and stopped dead in my tracks. “Who the hell painted that?” I wondered gawping at a large canvas on the wall. He took me to his ramshackle studio where I witnessed something remarkable – not only in his work, but in him. There was something mesmerizing about him. I wasn’t sure what, and there was evident paranoia. He pointed out the 24 hour armed guard watching over his property from the far side of the street. He set 50 traps across the hall floor every night before bed, bolted the bedroom door which was guarded by his dog, an enormous Rottweiler, and slept with a gun under his pillow. I left it there.

A year later, the name Calvet was still pestering me. So I took a 10 day research trip back to Nicaragua and learned about this man’s past. This time I left with my mouth open. I’d not heard a story like it, it was truly stranger than fiction. It was a tale full of human contradiction, of human strength and frailty, of the destruction of family and the desperate longing for one. Here was a man who had experienced an extraordinary metamorphosis, yet he was still racked by guilt, the need to make amends and forgive himself. I knew that I had found something very unusual. It had lit the fire inside and I was compelled to make the film.

His inspiring story was always my first consideration and the notion of what can happen to us in our darkest hour – the possibility of transformation in a moment of total crisis. Yet I found his art electrifying as well (and I am no art aficionado). I was fascinated that this was not a man who decided to paint; painting was something that happened to him. And what started as an uncontrollable purging, then became a raging desire that has continued at an astonishing pace. It is both his on-going therapy and his newfound addiction. A day out of his studio and withdrawal sets in. It is about revisiting the insanity of his self-incarceration, exorcising the shadows of his past, and slapping down on canvas the dirty truth of life.

Making the film was a remarkable adventure, not all easy, and it was a wonderful mutual exchange between protagonist and filmmaker. To accompany Calvet on his journey to find his abandoned son was a rare privilege. The time for lies, manipulation and hiding was over for him. He needed to do the right thing, and he needed to confess, much as he does in painting. That brought a fresh and often shocking honesty to the film.

It's a gripping tale of human triumph and from a dark place, it delivers a powerful and inspiring message. Never believe you’ve played your last hand. No matter how lost you are, it’s never too late.

Dominic Allan
Director/Producer, CALVET





IMBd User Reviews

An excellent, emotional, and under-seen documentary
9*/10* 5 July 2013 | by runamokprods
While it's a slow build, this is ultimately a deeply affecting portrait of a man trying to make up for his past and redeem his soul.

Cavlet was a violent, angry young man, a drug abuser, self described 'schemer' and brawler who walked away from his wife and young son for an imaginary better life working as a bodyguard for a mobster in America. Now, years later Calvet has evolved into a successful artist, pouring his pain and rage into his canvases.

Sweet Surrender

But the complete loss of connection with his son, who is now 18 haunts him, and leaves a huge hole in his life and heart, so he sets out to try and reunite with a boy he hasn't seen or spoken to in many years.

There were times when events felt a bit set up, and moments where Calvet's natural flair as a storyteller made me wonder if certain details of his story had been embellished for the cameras. But there are many moments, as the film goes along, that feel truthful, painful, honest, and moving.

Calvet's art itself is quite fascinating, and whether his amazing (and often horrifying) stories of his past have a touch of aggrandizement or not, they're always fascinating to listen to. It's too bad this excellent, very well reviewed film didn't get more attention, but at least a DVD and download are now available through a website



***** Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald | 20 June 2011

This film is a feature-length confessional of a modern day renaissance man - a biopic of a virtually unknown French artist, currently living in Nicuaraga. Jean Marc Calvet's life is a gripping story. Our first view of his work is a sublime experience. A human face, constructed of a thousand individual pieces of shape, colour, form and tone. It's screaming. Astonishing work, in all its craven, colourful, tortured simplicity. Our first glimpse of Calvet, in an over cranked close up of him in a sea of anonymous faces is remarkable; a hard stare, even behind shades.

Jean Marc Calvet is a remarkable storyteller. He's animated, rattling off colloquial French at machine gun speed, yet contemplative and emotional when dealing with moments of sheer regret. The film does not shy away from this. We never once see him fail to deal with his emotions. Calvet's guilt over abandoning his son Kevin becomes the impetus for his artistic expression and later penance for reconciliation and redemption.

After Dinner

After his time in elite military service, he gets a job as a bodyguard, having been noticed at a shooting competition. For reasons unsaid - but later dealt with in depth - he goes to the United States to become a bodyguard for a massive wage hike, and abandons his family in the South of France. After working several months unpaid, he rips off his boss for $50,000 in cash (and an additional $600,000 in cashier's cheques).

Suicidal, Calvet locks himself into a den and immediately starts a crack, alcohol and heroin binge that lasts three months, eventually exploding Pollock-style in a vomitorium of art. This is shown using three lengthy pieces of footage, where Jean Marc tells the story in his Nicuaraga home, a deeply personal revisitiation of the den, where he physically demonstrates the "vomit" and art meltdown, and a small piece of clever tone poem reconstruction. It's an awesome scene, charged with emotion and edited to perfection by Paul Carlin.

The film is well-told. It's deliberately structured, slipping back and forwards in time to illustrate the strongest crisis points in Calvet's life. It mixes days of conversation with director Dominic Allan, with a detailed across-the-world tour of the most influential places in Calvet's life. Our initial headlong rush into hedonism directly compares with his later fall and emergence as a mature, contemplative artist. His work is a struggle to reconnect with his deep humanity. Watching him take his demons head on is riveting.

We deal with his life's work - his compulsion on painting. "It's stronger than me", "painting is my fucking life raft" As a work takes shape, he astutely describes his emotional state, being compelled to complete the painting. And even while away from a canvas, we see him scribble away furiously on a sketchpad using cheap highlighters and pencils.

We see him wrestling with the letter for his abandoned son, now a young man. Even while a turmoil of emotions, he distinctly avoids empty platitudes and cheap greasy emotional witter - he's much too self-aware for that.

He lives with his new wife in Nicuaraga, with a deaf and mute daughter. He's not worried, being an obviously doting, loving father - "I was blind, deaf and mute for years".

Calvet is an extraordinary achievement - certainly one of the best films of the year. In trusting director Dominic Allan, Jean Marc Calvet found a symbiote to make yet another piece of magnificent art. Allan tells the artist's story with enormous care, attention, skill and passion. It is emotionally touching, raw, painful and honest. Catharsism and redemption. It is sheer drama.



Calvet – review

3 / 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars Andrew Pulver | Thu 17 Nov 2011

A documentary about the junkie-turned-painter that allows him to tell his life story at a breathless, entertaining pace

 Brush with horror ... Calvet

Calvet film still

French-Nicaraguan painter Jean-Marc Calvet is the subject of an artist-documentary that is powered almost solely by Calvet's immense on-camera charisma. Virtually without stopping to draw breath, Calvet launches into an account of his life: gruesome teenage delinquency, a spell in the Foreign Legion, bizarre interludes as both a Miami mobster's bodyguard and a night-squad policeman, and a cathartic conversion to art during an extended drug episode. As with most raconteurs, you suspect that Calvet is subtly allowing himself to come out fairly well, but he has a good line in searing honesty, as well as a charming habit of physically acting out the incident on hand. Calvet's horror-story self-berating ("I did everything I could to be a total bastard, and I succeeded") takes up the first two-thirds of the film: the final act is devoted to tracking down the son he hasn't seen since he abandoned his family a decade and a half earlier. The film-makers may be trying for a very ripe dose of heartstring-tugging here, but after the brutalism of what went before, it's a genuine relief.



The Filmmakers

Director / Producer – DOMINIC ALLAN

Born in England, Dominic has spent his entire professional career working in production of film, television and advertising, rising in the 1990s to become an award-winning documentary filmmaker. From an impressive range of political, historical, observational and travel documentaries, his recent films include:

THE PIPELINE (BBC Storyville / PBS & CBC co-production)

  • A 2000km journey across Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, on the trail of a new oil pipeline being built from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. The film exposes the social and environmental damage in the pursuit of oil through some of the most dangerous and geographically challenging regions on earth.
  • Winner – Cine Golden Eagle, Washington
  • International Showcase – Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, Toronto


  • With unprecedented access to the daily life of Nelson Mandela, this two part film explores both past and present to tell the epic story of one the greatest icons of our time.
  • Nominee, International Emmy

ISRAEL UNDERCOVER (BBC Correspondent Special / October Films / WGBH Frontline)

  • With unique access to the Israeli special forces, the film examines the methods and rational behind the scenes. On missions with four different units, the camera then follows an elite snatch squad deep into the West Bank.
  • Winner – TV Story of the Year, Foreign Press Association Media Awards
  • Winner – Journalist of the Year, Foreign Press Association Media Awards
  • Nominee – The Rory Peck Award for exceptional individual work in a war zone

After graduating from film school in UK with distinction, Dominic worked in post production at The Moving Picture Company in London. He then worked in commercials and music video production for Virgin among others, before moving on to work as a Location Manager, then Assistant Director in commercials, television and numerous feature films including HellraiserWiltHow To Get Ahead In AdvertisingGreat Balls of FireAccidental Tourist and Batman. As a Director, he began with music videos and TV serial drama, though soon gravitated towards documentary, with films such as 7 Days That Shook United, an alternative history of the legendary Manchester United Football Club. He is based in Barcelona and continues to develop and direct new film projects.

Cinematographer – DEWALD AUKEMA

Amongst the numerous awards Dewald has won, two films he photographed have been nominated for Oscars, three have been nominated for an Emmy with two, The Life &Amp; Times of Count Visconti Luchino (2003) and Ascent of Money (2009) taking the top honour. Dewald studied film production at the Pretoria Film School in South Africa in the 80s. Over the last 28 years he has photographed over 70 anti-apartheid films for international broadcasters, more than 300 documentaries worldwide, 9 feature films and numerous drama series for TV. He lives and works out of London.

Film Editor – PAUL CARLIN

Paul has edited documentaries and feature films for over 20 years. The demand for his talent has never been higher with award winning documentaries that include Baby It’S You (Emmy), Ghosts of Rwanda (Peabody Prize), The Death Train (Hugo Award), Staying Lost (BBC Indie Awards) and a theatrical release in 2008 with Turn It Loose. His feature film credits include Reason to Die, Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil, Mike Hodges’ I'll Sleep when I'm Dead, and most recently In Transit and Lilacs. Paul lives and works in London.


Bernie had considerable commercial success in France in the 80s and 90s with a hit record and the numerous tracks he wrote for celebrated French singer, Veronique Sanson. Collaborating with Vangelis’ engineer, Philippe Colona, he then produced his album Aelita, and in 1999 he formed Izdatso, releasing two albums on Nutone/EMI America. His focus since has been as a digital composer under the alias Edith Progue, with the exquisite Timeline released in 2007 on Berlin's iconic Mille Plateaux label, winning Best Album at the Qwartz Electronic Music Awards. He lives and works in Paris.




"I paint by necessity… without thought, some form of liberated automatism. I allow my unconscious mind to guide my hand. I cultivate my obsessions by making use of my demons and my ghosts to pull a creative energy from them. An artist is above all an antennae – an emotional receptor opening a passage into different worlds. Each character in my paintings is filled with stories and creatures, giving life to a constant movement of death, love, sex… of life to put it simply. We are all made up of details. Our life is constructed by them and in their absence we would not exist. We would become transparent.
On the surface, we are only words, expressions – inside we are colors."

Jean-Marc ‘s life  inspired the British film director Dominic Allan who made the movie “CALVET” recounting his incredible journey in life and his redemption thanks to his paintings.Today, Calvet’s arwork is well recognized and can be found in Museums, Fondations in the USA, in Nicaragua and in numerous international collections.