The 17th-century Italian Early Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652) has been embraced in recent years by a raft of novelists, filmmakers, playwrights and art historians who have pressed her into service as a feminist heroine. The first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, Artemesia overcame numerous obstacles – including a rape by her tutor, which led to an infamous trial – and painted bold, Caravaggio-like canvases of strong women in Biblical and mythological settings, like Judith Beheading Holofernes, which depicts the Biblical decapitation in a bold and bloody manner unusual for its time. Her life story – what is known of it, as much of the biographical data is lost – has for many years inflamed feminine imaginations and inspired two novels, several plays by Sally Clark, elements of the Wendy Wasserstein play The Heidi Chronicles, and a 1997 film, Artemesia.
The story of Artemesia, who under her artist father’s tutelage began painting at 17, seems to have caused Ellen Weissbrod, an experienced documentary filmmaker (Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones), to completely take leave of her senses. Weissbrod’s Artemesia obsession, which began when she read about the artist, has resulted in A Woman Like That, a film that tries to parallel Weissbrod’s own experience, as a vaguely unsatisfied, insecure woman approaching 50, with that of Artemesia, who lived 400 years before her. In Weissbrod’s mind, their lives are so comparable that “What would Artemesia do?” is a useful mantra for everyday guidance. Pedaling her bicycle around town, Weissbrod muses about her I-Am-Woman determination to make a film about Artemesia. “I’m finally getting it together. I’m ready to go. I’m making it happen.” (She calls to mind Andrea Martin’s Libby Wolfson character on SCTV, with her play “"I'm Takin' My Own Head, Screwing it On Right, and No Guy's Gonna Tell Me it Ain't.”)
What she makes happen is less a film about Artemesia Gentileschi, painter, than a rather embarrassing diary about Ellen, filmmaker — a hodgepodge of shaky undercover camera work (after a St. Louis art museum, perhaps forewarned about Weissbrod, forbids her to film an exhibition of Artemesia’s paintings), travel footage of Italy, disorganized biographical nuggets from art historians, four-way split screen effects, home movies of Weissbrod as a child, dramatic readings of Artemesia’s letters that resemble nothing so much as a community-theater production of for colored girls, and costumed re-creations of the settings of Artemesia’s paintings by high school students in Paducah, Kentucky (seriously!).Throughout the film, Weissbrod highlights phrases from Artemesia’s letters or spoken by the commentators that she considers useful in her personal journey of self-development, rendering them in graphic lettering in the style of an Infomercial or corporate recruitment video. From these selected phrases, Weissbrod extracts a manifesto for her life. “Artemesia wouldn’t take no for an answer. I’ve gotta find a way to be a woman like that.”
Actually, very little is known about what kind of woman Artemesia was, apart from the character projected on her by latter-day admirers. Her surviving letters, mostly routine business correspondence to commission clients and benefactors, suggest that she was acutely aware of the disadvantages she faced as an artist because of her sex, and her forthright testimony at the rape trial of Tassi, her attacker (some say seducer) suggests that she was nobody’s fool. Another life lesson for Weissbrod. “I would kill to write letters like Artemesia,” she gushes with adolescent enthusiasm.
The film devotes a lot of time to the rape case, which has been widely discussed and dramatized, chiefly because it’s the most thoroughly documented episode in Artemesia’s life (the trial transcripts, in crumbling ancient books, can be paged through by historians and obsessed American filmmakers). Following its lengthy disquisition on the rape, complete with dramatic readings of Artemesia’s explicit trial testimony, the film claims that Artemesia’s life was not defined by the rape. The rape is, however, what defines Artemesia’s legend. A chorus of voices, including several women filmed on the street, praise Artemesia for her “pluck,” her “courage,” her “guts.” The encomiums suggest, disturbingly, that some people derive a peculiar gratification from Artemesia’s graphic account of grabbing her attacker’s penis and yanking so hard it tore the flesh.
While there is some discussion of the qualities of Artemesia’s paintings (the only negative note being sounded by a man who pronounces it “second-rate Caravaggio”), Artemesia’s oeuvre, while undeniably accomplished, is not overwhelmingly exceptional for its time, save for the fact that it was created by a woman and depicts violence and female nudity forthrightly. “The real story is her painting,” says one art historian, but it seems that the legend of Artemesia is based less on her work — how many people today are genuinely excited by Baroque painting? -- than on the indelible symbol of castration in Artemesia’s life and paintings of vengeful women beheading their attackers. This film, and the latter-day legend of Artemesia, prompt the question of whether it’s the vicarious fantasy of physical violence — interpreted as “strength” and “heroism” — that really inspires her legion of contemporary admirers.
Also posted at the Cleveland Movie Blog.