If asked to name an American female photographer who committed suicide, you'd probably first think of Diane Arbus. Until now.
Francesca Woodman may be about to give Arbus a posthumous run for her money. The doomed heroine lives on in The Woodmans, which won Best New York Documentary at the ninth Tribeca Film Festival.
Best known for her dreamy black-and-white stills and videos, Francesca often appeared in the raw. Ophelia herself couldn't have composed more intimate, unearthly meditations on the feminine and the floral. Francesca's work has entranced art insiders for 30 years, and now its mystique is spreading to the cinema world as well.
C. Scott Willis' filmed eulogy is at once mournful, celebratory and transcendently beautiful, making it easy to imagine that Francesca would be pleased with the result.
Willis knows that audiences are vulnerable to the tragic chic of an artist jumping to her death -- as Francesca did in 1981 at age 22 -- and that they ache to see omens of her mortality in every frame. So he homes in on the joyful act of her creativity, and prevents us from reading her work "as one long suicide note," which is how the Emmy Award-winning director put it after a Tribeca FF screening.
Rather, it was Francesca's artistic slumps, when she ceased to produce, that summoned her inner vultures. So says her Rhode Island School of Design roommate in one of many perceptive insights she shares on camera.
Commentary by friends and family reconstruct a persona who was as light and dark as her compositions. Yet, as the movie title implies, The Woodmans is no mere solo tribute, but a family portrait. It took Willis three years to lure Francesca's next of kin to the project and an additional three for the shoot. In telling their stories, they toggle between biography and autobiography, and reveal their own artistic merits and ambitions.
The mother, Betty, creates ceramic art whose parakeet hues enliven the screen, and, at a climactic moment in the film, the U.S. Embassy in China to boot. George, the father, is a painter of nearly as dazzling a palette, who embraced photography spookily reminiscent of his late daughter's. And Francesca's brother, Charles, trucks in electronic art.
As if taking the artistic cue from the Woodmans, Willis layers his film with eclectic textures and tones. Exuberant colors flow from the family studios and homes, both in Italy and America, and offset the elegiac blacks and whites of Francesca's realm.
The narrative structure is an assemblage in its own right. Granted full access to Francesca's portfolio and personal writings, Willis treats them with the sensitivity and respect that is due found art.
Diary confessionals give the deceased her own dialogue and commentary. “I am so vain and so masochistic – how can they coexist?" she wrote. And lest anyone doubt her fragile spirit, it suffices to note, "I confuse everything for myself," and "I just feel so alone." We get an unvarnished glimpse of what it was like when the RISD grad struggled to find work in New York.
But her pixie nature also comes through in these private scrawls. “I am very feminine in the pink and lacy fashion…and mother is not," she zinged in her coming of age.
Is there a villain in Francesca's sad tale? Admirably, Willis withholds judgment. At most he sniffs around the atmosphere of competition among the Woodman artists. And we get hints that Betty and George's love affair contributed to Francesca's sense of apartness. ("My parents are so very married," she confided in her diary.) Yet there's no mistaking their support for her prodigious talent.
Similarly, the director refrains from sudsing up Francesca's suicide. For him, the impact of that act on her loved ones – and on their art -- is the richer theme. Betty and George deal with guilt and mourning in different ways. "There's a psychic risk in being an artist," George offers by way of imposing sense on the loss.
Three decades into it, neither sheds a tear. Yet some viewers may accuse Willis of milking the ordeal via weepy friends. "If no one cried for Francesca, it wouldn't feel right," explains the filmmaker. "I wanted to signal to the audience that it was okay to cry."
But don't expect to find any violin swells in The Woodmans. "A violin says, 'Cry now,' " per Willis. Steering clear of instruments that "carry predictable emotional value," he tapped composer David Lang (Bang on a Can) to work up the film's musical voice. The Pulitzer Prize-winner allegedly tested untold flower pots until securing a proper section of B-Flat and C-Flat terra cottas.
Mostly the score hits its mark. One early exception is a moody, suspenseful manipulation surrounding Francesca's "aloof" and "special" character, visually underscored by her cool stare and the way she "held herself apart."
It's a minor quibble in a film that justifies the trust of its complex and compelling subjects.