Saturday, March 10, 2018

a perfectly made film

Friday, Mar. 9, 11:28 pm

I’m befuddled about why I missed Jane Campion’s “Portrait of a Lady” when it was first released, 1996. I can recall that the year was somewhat chaotic for me. But I loved “The Piano” (1993).

Anyway, I saw the film tonight (streamed it). I was mesmerized: Campion’s use of light, the editing, the camera, the acting! Nicole Kidman wasn’t nominated for Best Actress? Her mastery of showing that a woman may be nearly always thinking more and differently from what she says is stunningly done. Getting beyond the breathtaking prettiness of Ms. Kidman (amplified so well by Campion’s use of light)—beyond those eyes—Ms. Kidman is simply beautiful as a character of intense intelligence lost in La Belle Époque. (And only John Malkovich can be so suavely evil. He’s brilliantly hateful.)

Campion puts strong emphasis on an aspect of the story missing in online summaries of James’ novel: Cousin Ralph’s love of Isabel is for the sake of Isabel finding her own true way (actualizing her potential, to my mind), not yielding to a marriage defined for her. What Ralph wants is her flourishingher flourishing—Ralph never needing her recognition of the depth of his love (which, of course, she sees too late). That is True Love: Selfless giving. In fact, Isabel does find her own way. She will go back to Rome to bring Pansy into her true home.

Ralph is Henry James putting himself in the story: sickened by the times, yet having reason to live on. (P.S. Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence, written around the same time, makes an interesting contrast to the work of her mentor: Wharton’s women are doing something different from what they say, tribally containing the pretentious men, being the backstage powers who know exactly how to prevail.)


I failed to mention several exciting aspects of Elizabeth Jane Campion’s masterwork (which, I read, wasn’t much regarded as the masterwork it is): When the film begins, one could easily be startled into believing that the wrong movie is playing, as if one has walked into the wrong theater (or been gypped by the streaming company). Black-and-white shots of teenage girls fade in and out, a little work of cinematic art all it’s own, until suddenly there’s Nicole’s eyes, shifting around, as the camera nears, as if Isabel is to be confined by the lens, a man, that Isabel wants to avoid—though, the man she overtly wants to avoid is walking past shrubbery behind her.

Another feature: Before Isabel decides to marry Gilbert Osmond (whose suave seduction so hides his duplicity), she takes a trip around Egypt and elsewhere. Campion depicts this like a 1920s silent movie (B&W with unsteady film speed, scratches on the image, bad cuts from shot-to-shot), which is hilarious.

Later, while Isabel is eating, the camera looks down into her plate which is covered with animated images of Osmond’s lips saying (like several men talking at once) “I am absolutely in love with you.”

Filmmaker self-reflectivity of the frame—self-deprecating and surreal—can’t be separated (I think) from the reality that Campion’s previous film was “The Piano” (such radically-different narrativity); and Kidman’s just-done film “To Die For” (1995, where Kidman plays a narcissistic “princess”).

A focused discussion of the realist story (James was a pioneer of realist fiction—doing psychology via fiction) could show how Campion and Kidman are in an intimate interplay—with each other, and with James (and the “Wharton” feminist implicit in him!). I feel that “Portrait of a Lady” is a high instance of transposing a great novel of its time into film work of its time.