Artemisia
Reviewed in June 1998
Director: Agnès Merlet. Cast: Valentina Cervi, Michel Serrault, Miki Manojlovic, Brigitte Catillon, Yann Tregouet, Maurice Garrel, Sami Bouajila, Jacques Nolot. Screenplay: Agnès Merlet, Christine Miller, and Patrick Amos.

Photo © 1997 Black Forest Films/Première Haute/
Urania Film, © 1998 Miramax Films
Image reproduced from CineImage
Artemisia tells the story of the only woman painter who ever got a commission during the Renaissance, passionate about her art at a time when women were not supposed to be passionate about anything except their wifely duties and daughterly obligations. For all of its lush period appointments, however, Artemisia reminded me of the work of Andy Warhol, a painter whose style and ideas could not have been more different from Artemisia Gentileschi's. The specific work I thought of was the serial study of Marilyn Monroe, in which Warhol reproduced her face almost exactly in grid-like fashion across a canvas but made clever adjustments of color and detail that make each Monroe seem distinct, separate from the others. The ultimate effect of that work is to convince the viewer that there really were multiple Marilyn Monroes, that our default understanding of her as a single entity, a united individual, is a flimsy and unpracticable conceit.

Such is the Artemisia Gentileschi of Agnès Merlet's film, rendered in several contexts—the artistic prodigy, the feminist heroine, the passionate lover—that do not hang together convincingly as one persona. Nonetheless, rather like a Warhol study, Merlet's film entertains and engages us through its own obvious ecstasy in regarding its subject, in portraying her from so many angles (even if little attempt is made to unify the character), and at working in such vivid colors and bold strokes—not to mention some worthy sexual frissons—that we get caught up in spite of ourselves. Artemisia is not as psychologically involving or convincing as Bruno Nuytten's Camille Claudel (1989), the film to which Merlet's bears the most obvious resemblance, but the bodice-ripping and romantic declaiming of the newer film has poor Camille beat for popcorn value all across the board.

When we first meet Artemisia, played gamely by The Portrait of a Lady's Valentina Cervi, she is already swept up with the visual world and possessed of an urge, almost a biological need, to capture its beauty through drawing. The artistic bent reflected both in her passion to paint and her undeniable talent, seem largely attributable to the fact that her father, Orazio Gentileschi (Michel Serrault) is himself an accomplished artist on a joint commission from the Pope to decorate a nearby church with frescoes of religious content. It seems silly to quibble, as some viewers might, with Merlet's decision not to explain more fully Artemisia's decision to paint; we are required, as we should be, by Merlet's silence on this point to understand her artistry as a visceral, inevitable compulsion—a part of her personality that no one can justifiably deny her.

We should also avoid the temptation to write off as convenience at best (or contrivance at worst) Orazio's encouragement of his daughter's painting, despite the cultural and religious stigmas well in place in Roman society against such endeavors for young women. For one, Orazio has no other children—which is to say, in the Renaissance, he has no sons—and can hardly be faulted for wanting to see his own talents and achievements appreciated and mimicked by his only child. Moreover, that Artemisia would ever have won an audience for her work or survived in the records of art history without such strong encouragement is even more improbable than Orazio's gifts of materials and praise. Besides all that, he does balk when Artemisia asks to break the graver taboo of painting male nudes, a practice against which the Pope himself had issued a specific standing injunction. "I am being denied half the art in the world," Artemisia complains, but her father nonetheless stands firm, erecting a series of scrims and dropcloths to shield his own male subjects from Artemisia's gaze.

These early scenes are some of Artemisia's best, showing how a Renaissance artist's studio would operate more fully and convincingly than anything I have seen in other films set in the era. A complex network of pulleys and props was used to arrange the subjects, animate and otherwise, of an artist's painting so that he could literally see his mind's-eye image before him while he painted. We see a young boy suspended in mid-air for many hours and forced to wear a heavy set of "angel's wings," whom Orazio nonetheless commands to sustain a more convincingly cherubic smile. (Hey, Linda Evangelista—you thought you worked in undesirable conditions?)

Merlet's script, co-written with Christine Miller and Patrick Amos, follows with several economical but sensual scenes that give us some idea of Artemisia's personality as it developed. She watches a couple making love on a beach (privately, they think) so she can accurately reproduce the muscle patterns and limb arrangements if she ever paints such an activity; her ability to read any such scene for its painterly or anatomical information is even more fascinating than the obvious awakenings to sexual practice they provide her. The same double-lesson appears when she allows a flirtatious young fisherman named Fulvio (Yann Tregouet) to kiss her once, in exchange for which he must remove all of his clothes and allow her to study his muscles and genitalia. "Is this just so you can paint me?" Fulvio asks, incredulous and disappointed that a beautiful women would force him to strip and then reveal such platonic intentions.

Such bartering of sexual access for artistic gratification sounds like something out of The Piano, and in fact, this scene is hardly the last in Artemisia that owes explicit debt to Jane Campion's film. Like The Piano, Artemisia ultimately takes shape as a love triangle, with Artemisia's obligation to her father substituting for Holly Hunter's obligation to Sam Neill, and sporting a signal, doomed act of transgression. This last is Artemisia's affair with Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), the headstrong painter with whom Orazio Gentileschi shares the commission for the church's fresco and whom he eventually gives permission to tutor Artemisia in those aspects of painting in which he himself is an inadequate teacher. When Artemisia and Tassi's relationship grows sexual, perhaps inevitably, Merlet stages a scene of Orazio running to his rival's bungalow and watching the pair through a window that mirrors a climactic moment of voyeurism from Campion's film almost exactly.

Such close appropriation of another filmmaker's choices is common enough in cinema, but Artemisia cannot accommodate such mimickry, mostly because the story of this first recognized female painter prides itself on its own "freshness". Any feeling of déją vu elicited by the filmmaking or storytelling is antithetical to Merlet's mission in ostensibly "recovering" her heroine's singular story for the first time. There are other reasons, though, why Artemisia seems staler and less involving after the affair with Tassi has begun. One is that the sequence of accusations, counter-accusations, and judicial investigations that proceed are generically familiar and highly predictable—and again, Artemisia's story should be anything but predictable.

If her narrative begins to seem clichéd and familiar, it's because the screenwriters change their minds at the midpoint of the film about who their Artemisia is supposed to represent, opting against the specific autobiography of a trailblazing individual and choosing instead to make her a symbol of men's oppression of women, and/or of the church's unnecessary restrictions on its members. Nor does it help that the cinematography, so eccentric and rigorously composed in the first half, settles in the home stretch for the kinds of witness-box medium shots and close-ups on gavels that we've seen a thousand times. Such a drop-off in visual imagination seems particularly rueful in a film about, of all things, a spirited, talented painter.

Apparently, historians of art and culture have disputed how much of Artemisia's second half can be documented by any existing evidence we have of her life. I don't know anything about Artemisia except what Merlet presents here, so I can't say anything informed about historical veracity; as sheer drama, though, I can report that Artemisia works much better as a detailed portrait than as an allegorical picture of sexual or secular politics in the Renaissance. The scenes inside the artists' studios; the nighttime reveries in which Artemisia learns to draw anatomy by examining her own physique; the tense, competitive relationship between Artemisia and Tassi; and the surprising, variegated modes by which Orazio Gentileschi encourages his daughter to learn and excel all provide for marvelous entertainment and occasionally for some accomplished cinematic technique. Artemisia occasionally makes the mistake of revering its protagonist too much, but a doting concentration on the individual is in every case preferable to allegorizing her forcibly into a symbol of all femininity. Artemisia Gentileschi may not have left a full enough record of herself to enable an authentic or even a plausible character study, not with a career that invites symbolic enshrinement as urgently as hers does. Nonetheless, for as long as Merlet is operating with all of her energies—and for a good while, she is—Artemisia is a fascinating study. B


Golden Globe Nominations (1997):
Best Foreign-Language Film

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