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Home » Culture and Criticism

22/31: The Woodmans

Submitted by on December 22, 2011 – 3:04 PM4 Comments

The Woodmans is a really interesting movie and also an uncomfortable mess, much like one of its subjects, and I don't quite know how to go about reviewing it, or even describing how I reacted to it. "Two artists raised a child who excelled in her own artistic sphere, then killed herself at 22. B-minus"? I'll do my best.

In brief, George and Betty Woodman, both artists, met and married, and had two children — Charlie, an electronic artist, and Francesca, a photographer. Art remained, really, the important thing, the topic of consequence, in the family, and Francesca absorbed that focus and commitment to The Work. Francesca also took her own life 30 years ago when she was barely out of adolescence, leaving her parents to wonder what role the privileging of art had played — and what role it should play for them from now on.

The film draws from previously-unseen journals of Francesca's, and uses many of her photographs as well; director C. Scott Willis is probably trying not to look for clues, forecasts of the end in Francesca's work, the many many shots of her lying naked in a copse, slung naked into the corner of a room, naked except for a covered head, blurred into invisibility, disappearing behind a strip of peeling wallpaper. But it's hard not to do that, and the same time, her parents argue against that interpretation — or against the idea that they could have used it 30 years ago, really, insisting that they looked at their daughter's work on its own merits and not for what it might tell them about her state of mind. Francesca's shots themselves can feel like the same old sophomore shit: look at me, pale and frail beside this ancient tree with my hair covering my nipples, a-li-e-na-tiooooon. But Francesca really got a lot of texture into her pieces, too. I kept admiring the contrasts of floor or crumbly ceiling and her smooth overlit skin, or how rich she got sand to look (keeping in mind that this is film of photos, too, so they must really pop in person). One of Betty's more strikingly weird comments is that "we were thinking maybe there was a self-absorption issue with all the nude self-portraits," or something to that effect, and that dismissal is pretty cold coming from a parent, but I can't say I wasn't thinking it myself. Francesca had talent; the oversubscribed nude metaphor aside, she had a composition eye. But she was young.

This is her father's explanation, for lack of a better word, for Francesca's end, too — she had a bad day, she'd had some disappointments, and she was young and she didn't know what else to do. Maybe. Maybe her parents, others around her, should have worried more about the fact that, after a previous attempt at suicide, Francesca had stopped working, for the first time since her early teens. Maybe her parents treated her too much like a small, similar-looking artist whom they occasionally fed and treated to an expensive new lens, and more like a child. Maybe the story would have had the same end, who can say.

…And here's my review, zigging and zagging around just as the movie does, unsure whether to focus on the parents' role in the upbringing, or the parents' defensiveness about the outcome, or how the parents reacted to the loss by, at least in Betty's case, walling off the guilt and changing tacks in her work (George began photographing female nudes himself, which is either a cynical piggyback, or an homage he can live with the creepiness of…or both…or maybe something else), or Francesca's work and the access to her thoughts about love, or what her friends thought. It's all over the place, and it probably needed to split itself into two hour-long features, one on the parents and their throughline with Francesca's story, and one on Francesca herself. And Francesca herself…you know, as lovingly as she's usually described, she sounds difficult and pretentious. A childhood friend noted that, once Francesca had no use for the friend artistically, she didn't call or write anymore. A classmate from RISD talks about how grandly Francesca dragged her name out at their first meeting.

But she was young. We can't know what would have happened next, how or if it would have evolved. We have the photos, and some video, and prepossessed but self-absorbed diaries…and her parents. I don't think Willis does a bad job, exactly, because it's maybe not possible to get a coherent narrative out of this particular family's tragic crossroads. That said, it's a fascinating study of artistic couples, of how children come to art, of the division that we think of as existing between art and self that for some creative people may not be there, and would it protect them if it were there. The Woodmans and its subjects are by turns off-putting, elegant, inappropriate, and mythic; if you do any mulling in your life about how art and/or people become, I'd definitely recommend it, because I don't think it succeeds as a documentary, quite, but as the movie version of an earwig (a mindwig?), it's fantastic. (It aired this week on PBS's Independent Lens; look for it in reruns.)

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  • attica says:

    When I saw the headline, I thought this was a review of the Kevin Bacon pedophile movie The Woodsman. So a misread there, but I'm not sure the movie you are reviewing is any more cheerful.

    That wallpaper photo is really arresting, for sure.

  • Emma says:

    Weirdly, I just finished watching this on PBS before I clicked on this review. It took me a moment to realize I wasn't having weird deja vu.

    I turned on the TV a few minutes in, so I wasn't sure at first who was the focus of the story; it seemed at first like a story just about the parents. I didn't know that Francesca had killed herself, which would probably have helped me figure out the goal quicker.

    I agree that the narrative kind of wanders around aimlessly, but it's an interesting trip. I don't feel, at the end, that I really know anything about Francesca as a person. I think I may watch it again, to see if things make more sense a second time around.

  • Nora says:

    I think you are young, yourself and have taken a very superficial view of the film, Francesca Woodman and her parents. It's a very complex situation that this film covers and it's subtleties seem to have passed you by.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:


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