For certain historical figures, life hardly ends when they die. If their work survives, or if their actions and notoriety continue to pique interest, their lives are up for constant re-examination.
Artemisia Gentileschi has repeatedly been in this situation. This 17th century Italian painter has been exhumed, dressed up in fresh clothes and trotted out as a proto-feminist, a resilient woman who defied her time.
While Gentileschi is undoubtedly a fascinating figure, her work as an artist often gets short shrift. Writer-director Agnès Merlet is guilty of the same oversight, even though her camera swooningly gazes at Artemisia (Valentina Cervi), who feverishly pores over her drawings while a hushed voice-over provides suitably cryptic, poetic expressions of her fervor.
The daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (Michel Serrault), a painter who followed the rich and intense portrait style of Caravaggio (at one point, the father-daughter team closely examines Caravaggio's painting of Judith beheading Holofernes, a biblical story that Artemisia would render many times to startlingly different effect), Artemisia works in her father's studio, but is unable to make her way in the male-only art establishment. Eventually, Orazio sends her to his peer-rival, Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), who specializes in painting land- and seascapes, to study perspective.
It's at this point in Artemisia that Merlet puts a decidedly different spin on events that would irrevocably alter these three lives: In 1612, Orazio brings rape charges against Tassi, and during a scandalous seven-month trial, Artemisia is also, in a sense, put on trial (she is even tortured in an attempt to elicit the truth).
Merlet (Son of the Shark) envisions Artemisia Gentileschi as a full-fledged Romantic heroine, driven by an ill-fated love affair to a life of resilient independence and fierce artistic expression. She also links Artemisia's creativity directly to her burgeoning sexuality.
"How can you capture such physicality without knowing what the body's capable of?" Tassi asks Artemisia in a creative come-on when she shows him a series of male nudes she has drawn. Their quickly escalating "affair" is presented as the key unlocking Artemisia's true artistic potential, and the trial as merely the revenge of a society unable to condone true passion, in love or art.
Artemisia has its strengths, including Cervi's earnest performance and the robust, naturalistic visual style that Merlet employs. Unfortunately Merlet's storytelling model seems to be Camille Claudel (1988), another French film about a neglected female artist. In both cases, the films say that what's really important is not the women's art, but their true passion: the male artists who inspired and betrayed them. This does a disservice to Artemisia Gentileschi, whose art stands powerfully on its own.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].