Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Artemisia (Merlet, 1997)

Agnès Merlet’s take on influential Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi is a film that veers away from the conventional account of the 17th century feminist icon’s troubled life in order to recast fellow artist Agostino Tassi, the man widely considered to be her rapist, as an unconventional tutor who not only gave her a few pointers on perspective, but awakened her sexuality as well. While historians will tell you that Artemisia was subjected to humiliation and torture because she dared to bring forward accusations of rape, Merlet’s film suggests that clergy and judges inspected her vagina and cruelly bent her fingers because she was trying to protect her partner in an affair that was illicit, but consensual.

With this rather charitable interpretation of Tassi’s involvement, Artemisia’s father, Orazio, becomes the film’s chief villain, as he attempts to preserve his family’s honor by bringing charges against his painting painter. Because none of the art academies will admit a woman, he convinces Tassi to offer his gifted daughter personal instruction. Merlet’s film gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that as a young woman, Artemisia is not allowed to paint nudes. As her father paints using a nude male model, a sheet is drawn to protect Artemisia’s eyes from gazing upon his anatomy firsthand. Frustrated and defiant, Artemisia begins to trace the outline of the model’s silhouette on the sheet.

In another scene, Artemisia strips to the waist and paints her own semi-nude body because it is the only way for her to gain critical information about human body structure. Eventually, she finds other opportunities to obtain the forbidden knowledge – a man and a woman making love on the beach, a mini-orgy observed through a window late at night, a local boy who is willing to be observed naked in exchange for a kiss. Artemisia’s quest to educate herself never descends into tawdry exploitation; however, it is clear that by choosing to focus on titillating speculations, Merlet’s intent is to tie Artemisia’s artistic struggle directly to the sexual repression that pervades her culture. Tassi’s historical rape therefore becomes instead a vital transgression that propels Artemisia on an unavoidable path towards iconoclasm. Her reputation sullied, Artemisia is no longer left with any honor to protect, no longer left with any respectable options other than to immerse herself completely in her art.

Without attempting to make a value judgment about Merlet’s historical fudging, considering the film alongside the conventional storyline only brings the director’s purpose into sharper focus. Objections to transforming a famed historical rape victim into a highly sexualized contributor to her own persecution are certainly understandable and valid. Artemisia raises many questions about an artist’s responsibility to historical truth that cannot be effectively explored within the scope of this review. However, the fact remains that Artemisia is a well-made, provocative film with beautiful photography and a captivating lead performance. Ultimately, Merlet’s film asks us to consider the conditions and circumstances that work together to fuel the passion within an artistic soul.


Galaxy Quest (Parisot, 1999)

Galaxy Quest is a film with one of those premises that movie executives must love. What if the cast of a science-fiction television show was forced to travel to space and fend off malicious aliens in real life? It is easy to imagine the comic possibilities as we see actors attempt to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality. Ripping off as much as possible from Star Trek while still avoiding copyright infringement, Galaxy Quest assembles a talented group of actors (and Tim Allen) for a lightweight comedy adventure that is palatable enough, though not terribly ambitious.

We get the expected gags, such as backstage grumpiness from Alan Rickman’s character, a classically trained thespian who refuses to utter the catch phrase that made him famous, and a degrading appearance at the opening of a new retail store. Most of these moments work well enough because the cast attacks the material with exuberance and commitment. Tony Shalhoub’s ship maintenance specialist is a captivatingly odd creation, as we wonder to ourselves if he is perpetually baked or just acts that way naturally. We know for the entire length of the film that Rickman’s character will eventually be placed in a situation where he will rediscover the freshness of his catch-phrase and deliver it with gusto. When it finally occurs, it happens perhaps not quite as we had expected as Rickman demonstrates the way a great actor can find truth in even the silliest material. What is Sam Rockwell doing here? He doesn’t know. We don’t know, but what the heck. He’s good for a few moments of memorable oddness, even if his character is utterly superfluous.

But ultimately, the star of this show for me was an actor with which I had not been previously familiar. Enrico Colantoni as the lead alien, Mathesar, delivers a thoroughly satisfying comedic performance, adopting a bizarre high-pitched cadence and beaming with sincerity and optimism. His choices are peculiar and bold without becoming irritating or phony. I also enjoyed how the alien creatures moved, as if they were still unaccustomed to their adopted bodies, and the striking gaze of Missi Pyle’s Laliari, pitched somewhere between Milla Jovovich and Jim Carrey.

Although it has its share of comedic moments, Galaxy Quest also has an adventure plotline that is every bit as silly and formulaic as the shows the film is parodying. Naturally, this is intentional, but we, as an audience, are forced to endure it. When Sigourney Weaver’s character observes that it’s ridiculous that her only job is to repeat what the computer has said or that the crushing devices in the hallway of the starport are illogical, does that make the rudimentary action more bearable? Well, kind of. But too often, I felt like the film was making a joke and then pointing out that it had just made a joke in case I had missed it.

It’s hard to feel strongly about Galaxy Quest either positively or negatively. It takes a decent premise and a winsome cast and then coasts along. I suppose there is some joy to be had in laughing at dorky TV shows and the dorky people who obsess over them, but it’s a shallow pleasure at best.