Bright Lights Film Journal

Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: The Woodmans, The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, All Screwed Up, Mother Joan of the Angels, We Need to Talk About Kevin

An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases

The Woodmans (C. Scott Willis, 2011)

The 83-minute running time of Willis’ documentary may seem brief for disentangling the many threads — aesthetic, emotional, psychological — that run like viscera between the members of the Woodman family, but the concision turns out to be a virtue, and the film is probing and revelatory.

Now numbering three (mother, father, son), the Woodmans suffered a cataclysmic and defining event nearly thirty years ago in 1981 when the younger child, Francesca, committed suicide at the age of 22. At the time of her death, Francesca had matured into a highly self-motivated, technically proficient fine art photographer, managing to amass an astonishingly potent body of work, much of it involving nude self-portraits, in not much more than six years. Yet in spite of the still growing, posthumous acclaim for her and her work, Francesca’s surviving family has clearly never recovered, neither from her death nor from the myriad of implications her photographs have had on their lives, before and after she took leave of them.

Francesca was born into an unusual American family fronted by two committed artists, father, George (1932–), a painter and photographer, and mother, Betty (1930–), a ceramicist and multimedia artist. True to its title, the film spends as much time with George and Betty as it does with their more famous daughter, with elder brother Charlie, something of a video artist, shunted somewhat to the side.

Reasons for a viewer’s engagement with Woodman and her work are not hard to grasp. The photographer’s extreme youth and physical beauty, coupled with her insistence to make her body, often nude, the subject of so much of her imagery, drives our fascination, which is heightened further by her suicide. Dying as she did not far from the bounds of her adolescence, the filmmaker’s strategy of framing Francesca’s stunted career and life within the long arcs of those of her mother and father germinates uneasy questions not only about their daughter’s art, but also about the Woodmans’ unorthodox family life and how Francesca’s creative trajectory relates to it — and of course how her precocious body of work affected both parents as artists.

Also, within this parental context, we wonder about Francesca’s budding, then full-blown, sexuality, as it’s on full display in her photographs. Her parents — both of them smart, sensitive, and alive to the potentially disturbing territories the creative impulse may lead to — recognize (and perhaps even encourage) the ever-blossoming myth of their daughter as the beautiful, death-devoted, child-woman genius. Yet only briefly do they touch upon the uncomfortable element wedged into many of Francesca’s photographs, which is their element of prurience. Gingerly, Betty and George speak of her “sensuality,” but only as framed by Francesca’s intent as an artist. Yet an initial response to the photographs may be more voyeuristic than aesthetic. Offering her nubile self to the camera as she does, Francesca can provoke as an object of lust, and it’s not difficult to imagine her as being fully aware of this.

In her obsession with her body, and with what effect it might have on those who gaze upon it, Francesca, first as a girl and then as a young woman, was perhaps not so unusual, especially as we survey the current phenomenon of sexting. Back in the 1970s, however, what is now a commonplace symptom of the acting out of teenaged sexual angst, was, on Woodman’s part as a young girl, a deliberate, virtually unheard-of crossing of a line, artistically intended or not. But Francesca’s youthful impulse to provoke with her naked body is not so much a theme for her work as a jumping-off point from which she leapt into realms of psychologically charged, chthonian content not easily defined.

Early on, shooting in difficult light, Francesca often posed herself in moribund environments such as rooms in decaying, abandoned houses, into which she might integrate or efface her body by blurring it in motion, or by obscuring it with scraps of wallpaper, or by crawling behind a detached fireplace mantle. Woodman didn’t concoct visuals like these out of whole cloth. By its very nature, photography has always held a fascination with the morbid or the macabre, and, furthermore, I’d be very surprised if books containing images by Clarence John Laughlin and Ralph Eugene Meatyard weren’t lying about in the family manse. Yet within her six or seven years Woodman moved way past simple emulation.

Experimenting, too, is endemic to photography; you take pictures of things to see how they will look as a photograph, and it’s this ever-present aspect of “what if I try . . . this?” that brings diversity and a sense of creative joy to Francesca’s work. In the film, Betty comments on this aspect of her image-making, by pointing to a photograph in which Woodman, using a large coating of flour, has left a negative imprint of her body on the floor of her studio. Betty rails against commentators reading an emotional or psychological message in the picture, “It’s not about loss, it’s about ‘what I did.'” Indeed, Francesca herself, in a vintage video that records the creation of that very image, rises nude from the floor, steps carefully away from her negative imprint, and declares off-camera, “Oh, I am so pleased!”

Hearing the excitement in the artist’s high-pitched girlish voice — and having seen the photograph that results from the taped activity — is a poignant highpoint of the documentary, underlining Woodman’s fascination with the transformative power of the photograph. At the same time, though, no one, including her parents, can deny that her images are indeed loaded with darkly limned messages. In one photograph, labeled “Angel” by Woodman, Francesca’s nude torso, blurred in motion, bends backward from a wall splattered with paint reading metaphorically as blood; her face, greatly out of focus, is closest to the camera, and her mouth, opened wide, looks like it’s screaming in terror.

It’s images like this that leads her father to conjecture that her depression and suicide were the psychological wages of being the intense creative creature she was. In evaluating any artist — especially those who make a final definitive end to themselves — I find this a dangerous road to take. It’s the Van Gogh syndrome: seeing the crows in the wheat field as harbingers of imminent death. Additionally, it’s implied that a competitive and frustrated Francesca became depressed because she couldn’t get her work “out there” enough.

No one in the film seems to want to view Francesca as a possible victim of mental illness; the sudden onset of severe depression often overtakes people in their early twenties, but a diagnosis of this sort, by having her randomly cut down by a chemical imbalance that could’ve happened to anybody, would undercut her myth. By most accounts, she found joy in her work, not self-destructiveness, but family, friends, and critics must live with the reality that her photographs will forever be inextricably linked with her wasteful, precipitous death.

Both parents have lingering guilt over that death, but Betty, at least, sees her daughter’s work as life affirming. Betty’s own art work, the making of which we follow throughout the film, also bristles with visual energy and self-renewal; the installation of a large multimedia mural in a Chinese embassy imparts a feeling of hopefulness to the climax of the film. But where, at nearly eighty, Betty appears to have healed herself through her work, George remains the walking wounded. A few scenes reveal him photographing a nude woman who looks not much older than Francesca was when she died. He’s rejected painting — early in the film, he admits that his daughter’s work was so good, it made his paintings look “kind of stupid” — but his current activities with a camera come off as a little creepy, or just plain sad.

Lina Wertmüller: The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), All Screwed Up (1974)

By appearing in the first two and not the third of the first three films of Lina Wertmüller released in the US back in the early ’70s, Giancarlo Giannini makes it clear how much her films needed him (he would also appear in her last two international hits, Swept Away, 1974, and Seven Beauties, 1975). Her first American import, The Seduction of Mimi, is lively, passionate filmmaking that joins the farcical with political messaging quite seamlessly, especially with Giannini’s canny performance as the ideologically conflicted wage grunt, Mimi, until, that is, a rambunctious sequence of low comedy in its last quarter upsets the film’s delicately balanced tonal apple cart.

When Mimi discovers his wife has had a lover, Giannini, turning on a dime, must play a broad caricature of a hot-blooded Sicilian, who, being cuckolded, needs to take revenge. Rather than simple violence, though, Mimi seduces and beds Amalia, the wife of his wife’s lover, ultimately putting her in the family way — the first steps in an elaborate strategy to publicly shame all who have wounded his honor. Playing Amalia, Elena Fiore, a Neapolitan singer who seems to have appeared only in a few Wertmüller films, is a large woman, whose unattractive face features a wart the size of a walnut. When she finally agrees to have sex with Mimi, Wertmüller lingers on Amalia undressing, but at this point inserts, as a stand-in for Fiore, a truly obese woman recommended to her by Fellini, who had compared his discovery’s ass to the cupola of Saint Peter’s.1

Wertmüller uses a wide-angle lens to shoot the stand-in’s bare ass climbing into bed to join Mimi, a grotesquerie designed, I suppose, to express, in ironic hilariousness, the horror of Mimi’s having to have intercourse with this big, ugly woman. It’s somewhat similar to a scene in Seven Beauties, in which Giannini, as the title character willing to do anything to survive as a prisoner of war, struggles to have sex with the camp’s corpulent commandant (Shirley Stoller). Yet neither scene is remotely funny, even if one is not objecting on feminist grounds. For Wertmüller, these sequences are not gratuitous burlesque, but “cathartic” turning points.2 Regardless of her intentions, though, it does feel like the scenes are played primarily for laughs, and the scene in The Seduction of Mimi, particularly, comes off as a lame, belabored skit that undermines our acceptance of the film’s seriously downbeat ending.

Among Kino’s new releases, the middle film, Love and Anarchy, in which Giannini plays a would-be assassin of Mussolini, emerges as the best. Indeed, among all her imported films, Love and Anarchy is perhaps the most successful fusion of the director’s raucous mix of the political and the personal, the comic and the tragic. Here she keeps a steady focus on the drama and its trio of sympathetic characters, and when there’s comedy, it’s leavened meaningfully into the drama rather than detached and blown up into the kind of buffo set-pieces that tend to derail the drama in The Seduction of Mimi and Seven Beauties.

Accompanied by Nino Rota’s sparse melancholic score, the film opens with a hushed, nearly wordless introduction set in an unspecified rural countryside where, its pastoral idyll shattered, farmer Antonio Soffiantini (Giannini) finds personal political motivation in the fascist slaying of an anarchist friend. When the newly minted activist — code-named Tunin for his role as assassin — arrives in pre-war, fascist Rome, he meets up with his anarchist connection, the prostitute Salome (Mariangela Melato).

Once inside Salome’s brothel home base, the countrified Tunin stares at the half-dressed whores with a nonspecific mixture of terror and amazement. Wertmüller has fashioned Giannini into one of her “southerners” (i.e., yokels) by making his hair jut out in all directions and daubing a flurry of freckles on his face, and Tunin looks too innocent, too inept to kill the well-protected dictator. To the whores, and to us, he’s something of a clown.

But throughout the film, especially after Tunin falls in love with a young prostitute, Tripolina (Lina Polito), Giannini’s strength as an actor endows Tunin’s rural innocence with a nobility of character that alters the worldviews of the two cynical, emotionally wounded prostitutes. Their last ditch efforts to save Tunin’s life emerge from a recognition of Tunin’s worth as a human being, and simply put — what, then, is the value of an individual life? — becomes the theme of Wertmüller’ gut-felt picture. Reluctantly agreeing to the lovelorn Tripolina’s passive-aggressive course of action, Salome, the anarchist, labels the two of them “fucking sentimental whores,” but, by this time — made drunk on Wertmüller’s image making — so are we.

Wertmüller’s camera often lingers in close-up on her actors’ faces in Love and Anarchy, and it’s Giannini’s eyes that prove the most eloquent. Through them we see a self-aware Tunin assessing and judging his own weakness in the face of death, while in the meantime uncovering the bruised heart and soul of Tripolina. Realizing the inevitable outcome of his upcoming political act, Tunin negotiates a two-day release from the brothel for Tripolina so that he can have her all to himself; here the character’s fiercely protective tenderness toward the very young Tripolina — Polito was around eighteen at the time — is very affecting.

[spoilers ahead]

The lovers’ romantic interlude is shown mostly without dialog as they wander the sun-drenched Roman streets, reminding me of Pauline Kael’s remark that this show can behave a lot like a silent film.3 When, with extreme, eye-moistening poignancy, the lovers’ brief holiday ends on the eve of Tunin’s date with destiny, Wertmüller sets us up for the most emotionally devastating climax of any of her films or, for that matter, of any film in a decade known for emotionally devastating climaxes. Love and Anarchy‘s final minutes are a frenzied, staccato mix of slapstick bumbling, nightmarish no-exit hopelessness, and operatic swoops of massed despair, from which the director jump cuts to the most uncompromising depiction of violent, solitary death I can remember from watching movies.

The last film in Kino’s batch, All Screwed Up — an entertaining political fable of class warfare in ’70s Italy — was Wertmüller’s follow-up to Love and Anarchy and, possibly because it lacked the star power of both Giannini and Mariangela Melato, made little impression on US audiences.4 Melato had been an especially strong presence in The Seduction of Mimi, in which, as Mimi’s lover, she matched Giannini’s intensity. Teamed with the two powerhouse actors in Love and Anarchy, Lina Polito shone brightly as Tripolina, but appears subdued and nearly unrecognizable in All Screwed Up, as a pert blonde among a trio of workingwomen negotiating, with varying degrees of equanimity, the sexual advances of three Italian men.

All three of Kino’s releases, which sadly lack any extras whatsoever, look great on Blu-ray, although Love and Anarchy, as has been noted in some online reviews, appears to have been rather inadequately transferred. But to this writer this had little impact on the intensity of my reacquaintance with this film, which remains, having been dusted off, firmly ensconced in my pantheon of select, beloved movies.

Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1960)

It might be fun to treat this film as a sort of Devils 2 — a follow-up to Ken Russell’s memorable 1971 film — but nothing could be further from its realities. Kawalerowicz’s film emerged over a decade before Russell’s, and, although based roughly on the same historical events that followed those depicted in the British picture, the Polish release has a far different tone and intent, not to mention locale.

Unlike Russell’s adaptation of a portion of Aldous Huxley’s quasi-fictional treatment of the possessions and exorcisms of Ursuline nuns in the France of the 1630s, Kawalerowiczs based his film on a 1944 Polish novella by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. In Mother Joan of the Angels, we find ourselves not in the French city state of Loudun, but in a barren, sparsely populated, medieval Polish landscape, with just a trio of settings: a walled convent, an inn, and a pockmarked no-man’s land containing the site of a recent immolation of a local priest, convicted of staging the demonic possessions of all the nuns (save one) in the convent.

The image of a prostrate Father Suryn (Mieczyslaw Voit) appears underneath the opening titles, and, as the film proceeds, those who have read Huxley’s book will recognize this priest as based on the historical Father Surin, who was assigned the sole task of completing Sister Jeanne’s exorcism after the death of Urbain Grandier. Much of Huxley’s account of Surin’s efforts with Jeanne are based on surviving writings by the historical Surin, and what’s fascinating there are the priest’s fears that, by the time the demons vacate the Sister’s body, they will have taken up residence in his own. Gradually, Suryn wonders if this is the only strategy left to him — to place his own soul in danger so that he may save Jeanne’s.

In Kawalerowicz’s film, Father Suryn’s charge, as Mother Joan’s sole exorcist, is the same, but while we can see that the priest is invaded, not by demons from Joan’s body but by the thrust of her repressed emotional — and sexual — needs, the director is saying that this profound mutual attraction, for the deluded Father, amounts to the same thing. The priest has the empathy to recognize Mother Joan’s isolation, but, because the strictures of his faith have warped his emotional responses to her, he hasn’t the ability to discern its source. Familiarizing himself with the erotic possibilities of pain, Suryn mortifies his flesh daily, using a cattail whip.

Challenging assumptions, Russell professed himself a Catholic, but Kawalerowicz was a declared atheist. On a simplistic level, his film could be seen as an indictment of vows of chastity. Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka) writhes and babbles convincingly in her public displays of demoniac possession, but in her private sessions with Suryn, the delusion — or, as it’s hinted, the play-acting — evaporates and Joan becomes a woman who wants Suryn as a man. Devout to the point of derangement, the priest reacts with horror to this unfathomable, deeply sinful equation. Never believing for one second that Mother Joan’s possession isn’t real, Suryn feels he must save Joan’s soul at all costs, hence the dire, violent act that ends the film, which parallels — along with a heavy dose of irony — the final soul-saving strategy of Huxley’s historical Surin.

Shot nearly concurrently with Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), it’s hard to imagine Kawalerowicz not having been influenced by the Swedish director’s Seventh Seal from 1957; it pictures the same medieval zeitgeist, populated by the kind of signifying types favored by Bergman. There’s a world-wise, lute-playing serving wench at the inn; a sensualist nobleman out to seduce a wayward nun; and an assortment of god-fearing, simple-minded peasants.

The nobleman may be free to indulge his sexual appetites, just as the lower castes are allowed to drink themselves to sodden blasphemy, but otherwise, personal freedoms are shackled by the church-forged manacles of original sin and its fostered belief in the utter reality of angels, demons, and the eternal battle between good and evil. Mother Joan and the only unpossessed nun, the flirtatious Sister Malgorzata (Anna Ciepielewska), are essentially renegades in a society of theocratic mind control. Momentarily, Father Suryn, too, questions the church’s view of good vs. evil during a mesmerizing sequence in which he places his doubts in front of an excoriating rabbi (also played by Voit), only to then reject the latter’s bitter wisdom. But like Mother Joan, Suryn emerges not as a “type,” but as an individual, who, once caught in a vice between conflicting truths, must mediate them through a tragic act.

Mother Joan followed Kawalerowicz’s psychological thriller, Night Train (1959), which also starred sad-eyed Lucyna Winnicka. Much is communicated with those eyes in both films, and Winnicka’s costar in Mother Joan, Mieczyslaw Voit conveys with remarkable subtlety Father Suryn’s gathering spiritual dismay and descent into madness.

Whatever deficiencies reported in Second Run’s first release of this film (I didn’t see the first issue) have apparently been rectified with this new edition. Taken from a recent restoration, it reveals an exquisitely shot black-and-white film. Extras include a 21-minute “appreciation” by film historian Michael Brooke, who also contributes an essay to the 20-page booklet that features an article by author David Sorfa. Bravo to Second Run for its updated reissue of this stark, uncompromising — but quite beautiful — film.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

If you knew nothing about this film, or its origins in a novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver, you might expect from its title a bouncy, predictable Hollywood cineplex comedy about the hazards of raising a “problem” child experienced by a couple played by bankable, likeable stalwarts like Jennifer Aniston and Greg Kinnear.

Instead, it’s an independent project from a Scottish director, Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999; Morvern Callar, 2002), who has fashioned a grim — but oddly exhilarating — film about motherhood. Since its central vortical event is a teenager’s mass murder rampage, you could then expect Ramsay to raise unanswerable questions (all too currently resonant in the wake of the events at Aurora, Colorado) about young people committing such acts, but that’s not her intent. This is a horror film about raising a child.

Ramsay has cast fellow Scot Tilda Swinton as an American mom. Partially because the actor’s physical appearance can make her seem not quite of this earth, some commentators have found the choice odd, but actually it’s a brilliant strategy. As the film opens, a violent event — its scope unknown to us — has already occurred, and Swinton, playing Eva Katchadourian, projects a smart, sophisticated woman who, sapped of resource and strength, makes herself numb with medication and alcohol. Although Swinton’s public appearances, when she’s hiply and androgynously glammed up, can obscure her age, she is in her fifties now, and she and Ramsay expose her middle-aged face as stunned, frozen, and mask-like.

Eva is a person depleted of all hope — or belief in any future for herself — and, as the actor herself mentions in an interview included on the disc, Swinton wanted her character to be somewhat colorless, with just her eyes showing the recoil after each abuse or insult is hurled at her, followed by the struggle to recover and go on. Thus we see the stately Swinton dwindle in psychic size until, in a scene set in a supermarket, where she struggles to avoid being seen by a hostile neighbor, she looks like a mousy, defeated housewife, her face made blank by grief, fear, and public humiliations.

The film’s timeline flashes forwards and backwards, with its “present” opening on Eva’s bereft existence living in a tiny clapboard house and desperately seeking employment. She’s lost her own self-run business (presumably in civil lawsuits following the murders), and applies for a clerical position at a local, run-down travel agency. Offering her the job, the boss tells Eva, “I don’t care what you’ve done,” but other citizens treat her as a pariah. A Halloween prank splatters her rental house with red paint, its association with blood clearly deliberate; outside the travel agency, in broad daylight, a matron slaps her in the face. Ramsay, and I’m assuming the novel’s author, clearly comes down on the side of nature, not nurture, as the cause of Kevin’s drive to do evil, but many in the community, in the aftermath of the deed, are on the side of nurture: Eva’s son has become the worst of all bad boys, and they hate Eva because, being a bad mother, she allowed it to happen.

It’s true that, even during pregnancy, Eva is a reluctant mother. After delivering Kevin, she suffers a severe bout of post-partum depression, and when, as an infant, he begins to scream incessantly, she appears helpless. In a rare humorous scene, Eva wheels the pram containing a howling Kevin over to a construction site, where the noise from the jackhammers offers relative relief from the wailing. Once her son becomes a toddler, a strange game, played exclusively with her mother, begins; and from there on, she incrementally yields everything — her youth, independence, and most of that which had made her life valuable — to the unwinnable contest of wills between her and Kevin.

Backwards in the timeline, we see a young and much happier Eva dating and having sex with her future husband, Franklin (John C. Riley). If we wonder why a beautiful urban sophisticate like Eva would marry a schlub like Franklin, Ramsay’s montage of Eva and Franklin merrily fucking their brains out yields the answer — the sex was good. One sliver from this sequence shows Eva — her reasoning clouded by an approaching orgasm — agreeing to a quiet request from Franklin, who asks simply, “is it okay?” That acquiescence results in their first child, Kevin, played as a teenager with seething, feral intensity by Ezra Miller. In his own fashion, young Miller can appear just as otherworldly as Swinton when he gazes up at her mother — or at us — with a reptilian stare of pure malice.

Ramsay’s film is elegantly structured, and with Swinton’s grayed-out yet overwhelmingly vivid presence, its dark radiance got under my skin and actually kept me awake one night. Oscilloscope Laboratory’s high-definition transfer serves the film quite well indeed.

  1. Russo Bullaro, Grace. Man in Disorder : the Cinema of Lina Wertmüller in the 1970s (Leicester, UK : Troubadour Publishing, 2006). p. 119. []
  2. Ibid. p. 119-120. []
  3. The film has many sequences accompanied only by Rota’s score or, in the passage where Tunin realizes Tripolina may have stirrings for him, by one of the whores singing what sounds like a passionate Italian folk song. []
  4. In her next release, Swept Away, the director appeared to correct herself by focusing the film on both stars, and she had another hit on her hands. []