The Woodmans -- Film Review

An indelible group portrait of a family of artists.

PALM SPRINGS — As frank, discerning and eloquent as its subjects, "The Woodmans" is one of the most affecting art-themed documentaries to travel the festival circuit in recent years. Focusing on a nuclear family of artists and exploring the effects of the prodigiously talented daughter’s suicide, C. Scott Willis’ elegiac debut feature is an inspiring portrait of working artists, fragile and resilient.

The film, which picked up the best New York documentary prize at Tribeca and screened at the recent Palm Springs festival, opens Friday in New York.

Francesca Woodman, who died in 1981 at 22, was by all accounts exceptional, and the body of work she left behind — mostly haunting photographs, many of them surrealist-influenced nude self-portraits — attests to a visionary imagination.

The temptation for many observers is to imbue every piece with premonitions of her final, self-destructive act. But Willis, a veteran of nonfiction television who was granted full access to the prolific woman’s photos, videos and journals, is more concerned with the fulfilling but precarious realities of aesthetic devotion, a way of life Francesca learned from her parents.

Her journals express acute self-awareness, longing and disconnection — all common enough traits in creative people. One of the observations Willis highlights, “My parents are so very married,” speaks to the intense bond between ceramist/sculptor Betty and painter/photographer George, together now almost 60 years. With their clear-eyed assessment of parenthood — George characterizes children as “gift-calamities” — and their unapologetic insistence that art is their chief purpose, they’re fascinating, likable subjects.

Francesca’s work awed her parents and brother Charles as much as it did her classmates and teachers. It’s now highly valued and in a way overshadows that of George and Betty. In interviews for the film, the Woodmans are candid about the unavoidable professional rivalry; understandably, they’re more guarded about articulating their grief. Filling that gap are teary moments from a few of Francesca’s friends. And joining Betty and George on a Venice gondola, DP Neil Barrett zeroes in on a moment that’s bursting with heartache.

As artists first and foremost, it’s in their work that they find an outlet for their profound sense of loss. The changes in their art after their daughter’s death are telling and, in George’s case, eerie.

Enhanced by David Lang’s mostly restrained score, performed by So Percussion, The Woodmans is an elegantly crafted tribute to a woman who set out to invent a visual language. Several of the film’s interviewees say Francesca was ahead of her time; no one mentions such obvious antecedents as Clarence John Laughlin, as though to place her work in a lineage would be to lessen its impact.

But there’s no denying the power of Francesca’s black-and-white images, alive with the coarse and crumbling textures of ruins. And though they’re dreamlike, she was, as many note, not a dreamer but focused and hard-working. That she succumbed to what her father calls the “psychic risk in being an artist” is the story’s dark specter. Willis’ film honors the ghost, celebrates the art and turns a penetrating gaze on the ways in which an extraordinary family has gone forward with its pain.

Opens: Friday, Jan. 21
A Lorber Films release of a C. Scott Films production
With: Betty Woodman, George Woodman, Charlie Woodman, Patricia Sawin, Edwin Frank, Sloan Rankin, Catherine Chermayeff, Sabina Mirri, Glenn Palmer-Smith, Robert Kushner
Director: C. Scott Willis
Producers: Neil Barrett, Jeff Werner, C. Scott Willis
Director of photography: Neil Barrett
Art director: Ekin Akalin
Music: David Lang
Editor: Jeff Werner
No MPAA rating, 83 minutes