Film Scouts Reviews


by Karen Jaehne

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Artemisia? It sounds like a new perfume. Or the cousin of Amnesia. But a Renaissance painter named Artemisia? It will surely be marketed as one of those elegant French erotic films full of low necklines and bustles and buns. Yet, the story of the woman painter Artemisia seems long overdue.

Unfortunately, there is a gap in the current market for historical sex. At regular intervals, we see one of these European productions about real people who lived a long time ago and did something noteworthy, but the most noteworthy thing they do on screen is have sex - just the way we do! Or better.

Farinelli. Amadeus. Bustier busters of that sort show us beautiful young women succumbing to only natural urges, although society - that dreadful institution! - would hem them in, but for their indominatible spirits! Three cheers for indomitable spirits and domitable flesh, when the ladies and lords doff the costumes of costume dramas!!!

Artemisia is a lotta fun - mostly when lovely Valentina Cervi is eagerly pursuing her art and trying to figure out how to paint nude men, especially when painting is frowned on and unmarried girls are not permitted to see naked men. There's a romping, rolling, slipping, sliding discovery of sex here that ought to be true, even if it has been concocted by French filmmaker Agnes Merlet for her cinematic debut.

So little is known about the historical figure of Artemisia, circa 1610, that Merlet had a wide open field to play in. Her strategy was to tell a double story of Artemisia learning to develop the talent she has inherited from her father, the minor Italian painter, Orazio Gentileschi, and Artemisia learning to love her father's rival Agostino. The girl is brazen, of course, and very appealing. The period feels right, because Merlet inserts small details and reproduces the sensibility that created those monstrous canvases full of angels and saints and mythology that astound visitors to any major art institution - the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, any church in Germany....

Artemisia grows as a woman and a painter, only to be castigated and condemned, which brings us into the feminist territory later staked out by Georgia O'Keeffe. The 17th Century did witness a trial, in which Artemisia's father (ostensibly to save Artemisia's reputation) accused Agostino of raping the girl. Still, she thought of herself as loving rather than being exploited by a married man. We can believe that, given the swaggeringly sexy performance of Miki Manojlovic. And Dad's got his own glory at stake, after all, so the daughter's career is more easily sacrificed on the altar of propriety. That's the psychological gist of the story, but of course, the visual component of the film is much more impressive - as it should be in a tale about art!

The only problem with the movie is the script. The story was inspired by the writer/director's fascination with the painting *Judith beheading Holofernis* that Artemisia painted with a verisimilitude that attests to her powers of observation - acquired in a butcher's shop...? The painting has the chiaroscuro effect of the period, as well as a striking sense of textures and tension: two women hold down a bearded man and saw his head off with a long-sword just under that beard. Out of this painting, Agnes Merlet conceived of the personality of Artemisia as a capable and determined woman. Yet we never witness such violence.

What we witness primarily are the sexual mores of the period and enough about the actual process of painting - the division of the canvas into squares, studio versus location painting, etc. - to lend considerable credibility to Agnes Merlet's historical research. Yet things get unclear, when the love affair between Artemisia and Agostino is exposed, and Agostino must be tried for rape.

The film seems to shrink just when it should swell. The emotional range that guided us through the early career of Artemisia suddenly dwindles, and the painter's feelings are reduced to fearful glances and a single outburst. My own impression is that the filmmakers may have found themselves with an overly long movie, and they tried to cut it down to size - a struggle not unlike that of Judith hacking away at Holofernes' jugular.

Toward the end, a kind of cinematic shorthand takes over. Instead of an ending as elegant as the visuals and acting and ideas behind the movie, it just stops. Quick summaries of the characters' lives are scribbled across the screen for an unworthy post mortem. The thought and passion that went into Artemisia's love-life peters out. Maybe that's what happened to the real Artemisia, after everybody saw her taboo paintings.

The film leaves us less than satisfied, and it's not just that we want more. We deserve more. And so does Artemisia, which is the whole reason for making this film. Indeed, if art historians have been so unfair in ignoring her, she shouldn't now be short-changed by filmmakers. - Karen Jaehne

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