The French seem to have a penchant for creating realistic period films without recourse to the gaudiness and ostentation that spoil many American or Merchant/Ivory attempts. The period is recreated as a setting for a particular kind of tale, not as a cliché or forced attempt at injecting some “culture” or “significance” into an otherwise weak or uncompelling story.
Agnès Merlet has beautifully handled the true 17th-century story of Artemisia, who is generally accepted (by those who do such accepting) to be the first woman painter of note. Without recourse to melodrama or trite, despondent monologue, Merlet has told a story of a woman who, rejected from the academy strictly due to her gender, finds herself under the tutelage or her father, a famous artist named Orazio. When her father is forced to share a commission with the Florentine Agnostino Tassi, Artemisia finds her aesthetic and personal worlds abruptly changed.
The dynamic between her father and Tassi injects Artemisia’s art with doses of insanity and passion. The film explores the dynamics of that patriarchal time, with its refusal to accept a woman as an artist, with a subtlety and sensitivity that lets the story, rather than the ideology, remain at the fore. Merlet’s commentary about the treatment of Artemisia in her own day is subtle, making the film much more enjoyable than a more explicit, direct incrimination of the politics of the time. Empathy for the character does not come at the cost of being thumped on the head; the tragedy of the situation is self-evident, and the film does not hamper the story by pontification or over-narration.
The film is very beautifully shot, and the characters seem real and alive. The performances are uniformly excellent, and even the subtitles seemed to have been carefully chosen. A wonderful and passionate film, Merlet’s second feature speaks of many more great films to come.