Judge Clark Douglas has had a tremendously difficult time trying to sell his nude self-portraits.
A film that explores what it truly means to create.
The story of Francesca Woodman is a strange, sad tale of an abbreviated career. Francesca was the daughter of two ambitious artists: her father George placed an emphasis on abstract oil paintings, while her mother Betty did groundbreaking work in the realm of ceramics. Determined to have a voice of her own, Francesca took up photography and primarily focused on nude self-portraits. Her photographs were black-and-white enigmas, often featuring a partially blurred image of her body (or later, someone else's) blending into whatever backdrop she has chosen. At the age of 22, after months of severe depression, Francesca committed suicide. The specific reasons for her decision remain unknown, and the quality of her artwork is for history and the art critics to decide. As the title implies, The Woodmans is less an attempt to answer the unanswerable questions about Francesca than it is a portrait of a complicated family dynamic.
Above all its other achievements, the film provides a striking portrait of grief that veers between touching and unsettling. In the wake of Francesca's death, her parents respond by throwing themselves into their artwork. In fact, George more or less abandoned his chosen form of art altogether and began focusing on black-and-white nude photography that was more than a little reminiscent of the work Francesca had done. There's very little mourning in the conventional sense, but we can see their despair and heartbreak in the dramatic shifts they made as artists in the years following their child's death.
Eventually, the grieving curdles into something just a little bit darker: jealousy. In the years following Francesca's death, her stature as an artist grew by leaps and bounds. Portraits that had once sold for $50 are now selling for $20,000, and some argued that Francesca was one of the most important photographers of her generation. Though the family offers somewhat grudgingly admiring comments about her work, the primary sense is that they wish someone were granting them the sort of praise Francesca is receiving posthumously. "I'm an artist, too," Betty sulks, despite the fact that she's highly regarded by many art lovers (something that inspires even further jealousy from George and her son Charles). Meanwhile, George darkly suggests that even though Francesca has received a great deal of acclaim, he's been permitted to live into old age, which is something Francesca will never have the pleasure of enjoying.
The film itself remains detached and nonjudgmental as it observes that Woodman family, but it's hard not to get the impression that these people are so consumed with their identities as artists that they're somewhat incompetent at the more basic roles humanity has handed them. George and Betty more or less push their children into the world of art and nurture the sense of competitiveness and insecurity that remains with them to this day. A good deal of Francesca's behavior, which probably should have been addressed by a responsible parent, is overlooked simply because they don't want to interfere with Francesca exploring her identity as an artist. Admittedly, both parents (Betty in particular) feel a bit of guilt in retrospect.
The DVD transfer is quite solid during the new interview sequences, but a good deal of the film relies on Francesca's grainy, scratchy archival footage. Bearing that in mind, what we've received is stellar. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track relies heavily on a score which is perhaps a bit too arch, but it's well-mixed and clean throughout (though again, the archival footage features some rather distorted audio). No supplements of any sort are included.
The sense of self-importance demonstrated by the members of The Woodman family can make it a little difficult to really connect with them, but The Woodmans has some compelling things to offer on the subject of art, grief, jealousy and parenting. It's worth a look.
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