It’s fitting that the world knows the artist Christo (born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff) by a singular name, since he’s had such a singular career. His vast environmental-art installations spring from conceptual leaps and emerge as engineering feats. Among the best-known, all done in collaboration with his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, are the 24-mile-long “Running Fence,” in northern California (1976); wrapping the Reichstag building, in Berlin (1995); and “The Gates,” consisting of more than 7,000 vinyl gates, in New York’s Central Park (2005). Jeanne-Claude died in 2009.
Once built, each work exists for a specified duration, then gets taken down. “All our projects work so far and they are totally useless,” Christo says in Andrey Paounov’s vigorously understated documentary “Walking on Water.” It focuses on “The Floating Piers,” a giant mustard-colored walkway Christo placed atop Lake Iseo, in northern Italy, in 2016. The intended effect for those traversing it would be akin to, yes, walking on water.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived of the project in 1970, for the Rio de la Plata, between Argentina and Uruguay. That didn’t happen. A subsequent version was proposed in 1997, for Tokyo Bay. An alternate title for the documentary — for all of Christo’s career — might be “Dealing With Bureaucracy.” Sometimes that can be even harder than walking on water.
The documentary begins in Christo’s studio. It’s a wondrous, wondrously messy space. The film doesn’t linger there. Christo seems constantly on the go. “I do not sit,” he says, and neither does “Walking on Water.” Trim and precise, Christo looks like a bespectacled bird. Can a stork or heron also be a raptor?
The documentary has a pleasing offhandedness. The same cannot be said of its subject. Christo, who turns 84 on June 13, is precise and highly directed. He has to be, with all that he has to deal with, from construction to logistics to PR. Christo is the artist as visionary. He is also the artist as entrepreneur. On the evidence of what we see in “Walking on Water,” he could spend the rest of his life posing for selfies.
Christo’s octogenarian energy level is enviable. In his safari jacket or anorak, he strides from location to location — and his face gallops from expression to expression. He alternates between prickliness and charm. (In fairness, he has a lot to prickle about.) Either way, the camera can’t get enough of Christo. Definitely lacking movie-star looks, he definitely has movie-star charisma. The musicality of his English, spoken with a born-in-Bulgaria accent, adds to the appeal.
Only two things betray his age: a slight stoop and an abundance of white hair. Yet the stoop makes his walk appear slightly urgent; and the hair, or at least its flyaway look, hints at high voltage. He does give off something of a mad-scientist vibe. Christo’s could be a cannier version of Doc Brown, from the “Back to the Future” movies.
Vladimir, Christo’s long-suffering assistant, resembles the French action star Jean Reno. When things get tense, you almost expect him to start brandishing an automatic. Especially as the opening approaches, tension does mount. There’s almost as much shouting in “Walking on Water” as in a John Cassavetes movie.
This makes sense, actually. To call the complicatedness of the installation considerable would be an understatement. Supporting the 70,000 square meters of fabric are 226,000 polyethylene cubes, secured by 195 anchors. Problems range from bad weather to a missing 6-year-old to too much popularity. Christo may be the most famous artist alive, and his works have become mass events: installations of dreams. If Christo builds it, they will come. “It’s a river — it’s a river of people,” Vladimir gasps with alarm of the crowds who have come to experience “Piers.”
“Two hundred thousand people [projected] in one day!” a no-less-agitated Christo exclaims. “Even half [of that] would be too much! This is madness, madness! Nothing to do with ‘Piers,’ but the stupidity of trends.”
Spoiler alert: The installation supports the weight of all those art lovers; the 6-year-old is found; “Piers” stays afloat for the entirety of its planned 13-day existence.
Some weeks before the final push, Christo goes to the Vatican. This may seem like a complete digression. In fact, it is a complete digression. But that’s all right, since it includes a sequence of Christo peering at Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, with Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” playing on the soundtrack, and it’s about as glorious a moment as there’ll be in a movie this year.
“I live for real things,” Christo declares at one point, “real things — real things — not virtual reality. . . . Real dry, real wet, real joy.” There’s some dry in “Walking on Water,” though not much. There’s a fair amount of wet. As for joy, that there is in abundance.
★ ★ ★
WALKING ON WATER
Directed by Andrey Paounov. At Kendall Square. 100 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: occasional eruptions of profanity in the heat of aesthetic argument).