The final years of the short life of Egon Schiele, the Austrian expressionist painter are chronicled against the backdrop of the final years of the Habsburg rule. The story begins around 1912 as Schiele (Mathieu Carriere) and his mistress and artistic muse Wally (Jane Birkin) are befriended by an obsessed teenage girl (Nina Fallenstein) who has run away to be with Schiele. Subsequently Schiele is imprisoned on the grounds that he has behaved in a sexually improper way towards the young woman.The young women falsely accuses Schiele and although he denies the charge he is imprisoned. The girl withdraws her accusations but Schiele is requested to leave the area as he has offended the social mores of the conservative society in which he was living. Those offended include his mother (Angelika Hauff) who rails against his lax morals.
On his release his excesses continue although he fights (literally) to conform even volunteering to serve in the Austrian army in the Great War. As a soldier Schiele cuts a pathetic figure and he is quickly removed as unsuitable. He disposes of his alcoholic mistress and has an affair with a society beauty who ultimately abandons him as she can not cope with his sexual obsessions. Schiele’s emotional cruelty is exposed as he shuns Wally as she nears death.Their parting scene at a Vienna social gathering reveals a corruption and cruelty that is at the heart of Schiele’s artistic soul.
Schiele’s paintings however develop greater depths as he pushes his body and emotions to their limit. Whilst his paintings are gaining acceptance (and many now hang in the Leopold Museum in Vienna) his own sanity suffers. He marries and appears to find a modicum of contentment until his wife Edith (Christine Kaufman) dies in the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. Schiele makes love to his dying wife in a scene that is tender yet shocking, evoking a central theme of Schiele’s work: a link between sex and death.