A haunting family portrait
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, April 1, 2011
The title says it all about “The Woodmans,” C. Scott Willis’s sensitive, absorbing group portrait of an artistic family. Although the documentary could easily be mistaken for a biography of the accomplished photographer Francesca Woodman, who died in 1981 at the age of 22 after taking her own life, Willis subtly teases out how her forceful personality, artistic gifts and posthumous success have impacted a family every bit as creative and ambitious as she was.
So even as George and Betty Woodman — a painter and ceramicist, respectively — and Francesca’s brother Charlie, an electronic artist, fondly recall Francesca’s early promise and potent visual sensibility, their accolades possess a competitive edge. At one point Betty admits at being “in awe” of her daughter, who as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design and later in New York seemed to have outpaced her parents’ quieter (but highly respected) careers. Even as a child, Francesca was “precocious, self-determined and special,” Charlie recalls with a touch of rue.
And she was, as her haunting, black-and-white photographs prove. Willis, an award-winning television news producer, allows those alternately stark and lyrical images to linger while Francesca’s family and friends tell of a life that began in 1950s Colorado, where George and Betty taught at the university in Boulder. Surrounded by her parents’ work and assuming their rigorous work ethic as her own, Francesca quickly took on the passions and self-discipline of a fully formed artist, but her emotions where as fragile as any young girl’s: One of the most jarring juxtapositions in “The Woodmans” lies in Francesca’s baby-girl voice, caught in brief moments, while her startlingly sophisticated images play across the screen.
Following Francesca’s journey from Colorado to Rhode Island to New York and Italy, where the Woodmans spent summers, Willis weaves a fascinating, multi-stranded tapestry. On the one hand, “The Woodmans” brings to light a little-known but important 20th-century photographer (as one of her RISD friends observes, a glance at any Urban Outfitters catalogue reveals her influence), even as it deconstructs the Sylvia Plath-esque mythology that has accreted around her. On the other, the film simply and lucidly presents the quotidian, un-romanticized life as a working artist, especially as it traces Betty working on a piece for the American Embassy in China. Most profoundly, “The Woodmans” tells the compelling, if slightly disturbing, story of a family coming to grips with love, ego, resentment and loss. Even in death, Francesca looms large in her family’s emotional life, like one of her own ghostly images that can never entirely fade.