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.



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