It may be borderline impossible to verbally articulate all of the emotional and psychological factors leading up to the 1981 suicide of visionary 23-year-old photographer Francesca Woodman, but The Woodmans, a masterfully gauged and composed bio-doc by C. Scott Willis, gives us such an approximate level of insight that the results are blindingly uncomfortable. The film’s title spells out much of its approach, as a reference to the family as a whole in lieu of the photographer herself. Drawing on interviews with artist parents George and Betty Woodman, older brother Charles, and various friends and classmates, Willis builds as a thematic foundation the concept of a young woman of preternaturally gifted visual instinct and emotional self-awareness, born into a family so unconventional and offbeat that obsession with artistic expression and a sense of isolation only added to her complexities. He doesn’t blame the family -- that would be naive, myopic, and cruel -- but he does enable us to see with utter clarity how the Woodman familial unit shaped a personality and an outlook as delicate and fragile as Francesca’s.
The documentary uses the Woodman photographs (which repeatedly flash onscreen) on a couple of key levels. On the most fundamental and obvious, they unveil a brilliant artist decades ahead of her time -- in the same sense that Van Gogh was ahead of his -- born into a world not yet prepared to embrace and accept her; therein, Willis reminds us, lies one of the core tragedies of Francesca’s life. But at the same time that the movie functions as a long-overdue homage to its subject, it also uses the photographs themselves (and obscure, self-reflexive black-and-white videos that Francesca shot) as analogues of an unassailable loneliness -- the cries of an individual who was desperately and unsuccessfully screaming to be heard. This is true to such a degree that when Betty Woodman turns up and dismisses the notion that the photographs are autobiographical expressions, the very idea seems ludicrous to us. Not only do the images contradict Mrs. Woodman’s insistences by demonstrating an inimitable and fixed view of the world -- a personal stamp instantly identifiable as Francesca’s own -- they contain haunting and heartbreaking metaphors of self-denial. From the recurrent motifs of the young woman’s body buried in peeling and crumbling wallpaper to a conceptual art piece that Francesca created, which ends with the outline of her body in flour -- eerily foreshadowing the nature of the young woman’s death -- we get a concrete impression of her crumbling inner self.
Willis wisely avoids overplaying his hand. What he gives us, time and again, are glimpses into the depths of Francesca’s soul, in both its stunning beauty and its tortured complexity. That duality sustains the film: Willis suggests that the photographer’s level of sensitivity, both to her inner landscape and the world around her, may have been a gift in addition to an impediment -- which may be the documentary’s gutsiest implication. In viewing Francesca’s work, we’re reminded of the same conclusion that we may draw after reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and learning of Plath’s unconvincing later assertion that she wanted to rewrite the same story “from a healthy perspective” -- that the suicidal thrust and the haunting acuity of the work itself may well have been inseparable.
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