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#4: The Portrait of a Lady
(UK/USA, 1996; dir. Jane Campion; scr. Laura Jones; cin. Stuart Dryburgh; with Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Martin Donovan, Barbara Hershey, John Gielgud, Shelley Winters, Viggo Mortensen, Richard E. Grant, Mary-Louise Parker, Valentina Cervi, Christian Bale, Shelley Duvall)
IMDb // My Full Review // Leave a Comment

Thanks, Laika, for digging this one as much as I do, and for being such a loyal, insightful reader. (Scroll down these comments till you hit Christmas Day, and Laika's own lovely memories of this film.)

I showed up 90 minutes early to Landmark Kendall Square Cinema in Boston, MA, for the first matinée of The Portrait of a Lady on its opening day. I could not risk getting a bad seat. By the time the previews ended, there were only 16 of us in the theater. As Henry James once said, What the fuck, people? I learned about myself that day, once again, that I am a terrible judge of what will draw crowds at a cinema. But I also learned that you can shake the world with a movie that gets everyone's attention, drawing awards and acclaim for your ferocity and singularity of vision, apply those same gifts to a beloved and formidable novel, honor the source while insistently making it a conduit for your own concerns, recruit a whole team of artisans working at the peak of their powers, draw performances from key cast members like none they've ever given, and almost nobody will love you for it. They might not even show up to see for themselves or vent their outrage, even folks who maintain they are fans. They might react to bad buzz not with shock, curiosity, or benefit of the doubt but with utter indifference. Just like that, you can go from hot to cold, making small movies that gratify their actors enormously but which only the tiniest cabals in the industry or the marketplace support, until twenty years later you cast your lot with television—hardly purgatory, especially these days, but an emblem nonetheless of narrowing artistic leeway, producer-side risk, and audience support at the movies. And perhaps, while all of the above can happen to anybody, and has, it can happen most easily to a woman.

I've never taken the commerical failure and weak critical reception of a movie more personally than I did The Portrait of a Lady's, and as you can see, I'm not interested in getting over it. On the brighter side, there are critics like Amy Taubin to whom I'll always feel loyal because they came out swinging for Campion's chilly, luxurious, ungodly beautiful take on James, an eccentric one for sure but hardly an apostasy. As previous visitors to this site know well, nobody is more responsible than Campion for making the movies a centerpiece in my life; even one of her short films appears on this Favorites countdown. Though The Piano is the feature I single out most often, Portrait in its way was just as transformative. As with anybody you commit to, you're there for them in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, and you rally when they're being abused. I'm just stunned, almost as much now as two decades ago, how this of all movies would require such spirited defense. Sure, I get why a Portrait this glaciated, a story this unhappy, a movie where John Malkovich barks at Nicole Kidman and head-butts her repeatedly, was never going to win a People's Choice Award. But the cinephiles? Those who emerge from the woodwork to defend Heaven's Gate, to recuperate Ishtar, to heap praise on anything shot as Portrait was in anamorphic widescreen, to snatch even Showgirls from the jaws of first-wave misapprehension? Their stares are often pretty blank on this movie, too. Every time a cast member caught a new wave of popularity, whether Kidman after Moulin Rouge! or Viggo Mortensen after The Fellowship of the Ring or Mary-Louise Parker after Proof and Angels in America or Christian Bale after Batman Begins, I waited for their partisans to kick off, at last, the Portrait revival that's obviously never coming.

Having said all that, now comes the scene in Searching for Jane Campion where I finally meet my heroine and she looks at me incredulously over lunch and tells me to get over it, and over myself. By many accounts, Campion is happiest with her work at its friskiest, its most art school, and a Portrait success might have enmeshed her forever in marketable, mini-major prestige, Sweeties and Holy Smokes be damned. Furthermore, there are signs all over Portrait that, short of actually presaging cold shoulders, she's quite aware of her own iconoclasm. With a winsome tilt of her camera's axis, august edifices of Roman antiquity threaten to slide off the screen. Her Isabel and Henrietta patronize great museums and get alarm-whistled by guards for getting too close to the treasures. Campion's all about putting her fingerprints all over other people's art. She's described many times the long tearful night in her hotel room after Sweetie got booed at Cannes, and I don't see how you pour years of yourself into a movie as bold, grand, and expensive as Portrait and don't weep a bit when it lasts two weeks in theaters. But during the same years of work, I imagine you absorb even more of Isabel Archer's own temerity, her determination to work against grains and upset people's expectations, her devotion to paths where clear obstacles loom, because she feels most herself when she's opting out of comforts and retreating from advantages she neither craves nor earns. Henry James's Isabel, within the sixteen opening chapters that Laura Jones's screenplay and Campion's film bluntly excise, unnerves her immediate family by spending all day in the unventilated library of her late and capricious father, poring through books and then scrutinizing her own reactions to them, cultivating idiosyncrasies that put acquaintances on edge, especially for a beautiful girl in want of a husband (and in fact prone to rejecting them, even landed millionaires who fall into her lap). Campion's film is itself the work of an Isabel: well-read, happily garrisoned in a room of its own, impudent in its headstrong self-confidence, aware that it both impresses and annoys people. Perhaps it is terrified to impress without annoying. Maybe Campion is spooked, a bit, by this golden opportunity that's fallen into her hands, and bent on doing something willful and perverse with it, however magnificent by at least my standards of acting, scoring, photography, and design. If I'm gnashing my teeth that few people felt seduced by her creation, I might be misreading Isabel and Campion as much as anyone else did. They never promised anybody a rose garden, and they seem to like leaving hung juries in their wake.

I doubt I'd have taken such umbrage to begin with if I weren't in my second year of majoring in English and starting to get the hang of argument-driven essays. If my professors and teaching assistants agreed on anything, it was their common desire for eloquent perspectives that marshaled persuasive textual details toward some original claim. That's a tall order for any novel, especially for longstanding members of the so-called literary canon, but that was fine by me: I wanted my studies to be demanding, and I appreciated that subjective opinions or emotional responses did not pass muster. But here was Campion, delivering exactly what my teachers were training me to produce and being derided for it—and nowhere more, it seemed, than among the bibliophiles, who by the 1990s claimed to embrace the death of the author, to bemoan the intentional fallacy, and to presume as a given that readers produce texts as much as writers do, via their own nuanced uptakes. Perhaps it was an advantage that I hadn't actually read Portrait yet when the movie came out and could enjoy another spiky, intrepid, unusual Campion heroine whose shoes smelled a bit, who didn't give a fig about her appearance, who harbored sexual fantasies even about the suitors she repelled, and who gravitated toward her own endangerment, even if she miscalculated the repercussions. I grooved completely to the movie's blend of accessible modernity and period specificity, of the stately and the surreal, and I admired how this vision seemed intent upon standing beside but also apart from James.

Any shock I felt came later, when I tackled the novel and realized just how much warrant James provided for most of Campion's imputed departures. Maybe not the Ani DiFranco fans in the forest glade. But Isabel's attraction to danger, her erotic reveries, Henrietta Stackpole's abrasiveness and Gilbert Osmond's immediately evident monstrosity? Campion heightens some of this but invents none of it. She's making arguments with evidence. She has a take on the story and its characters, not a ceremonial reverence for them. So does Janet Patterson, maybe modern film's most imaginative interpreter of period garb. So does Wojciech Kilar, a veteran of the far more inebriated Bram Stoker's Dracula, writing as sweeping and melancholy a symphonic score for Campion as he did for Coppola. So does cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, literally beveling our view of Isabel on several occasions, working resourcefully in low-light locations, moving his camera at times with the sinuous curviness of a Jamesian sentence. He wields his lens like a scanning tunneling microscope, finding nano-gradations of feeling in his actors' faces, and thus approximating the astounding lucidity of Jamesian observation. So does Nicole Kidman, who finds insight, dynamism, and colorful variation even in the most stalemated passages of Isabel's life. Campion dealt a very severe blow to Kidman in pre-production, asking her to audition for Isabel after previously offering her the role. Whether working through that experience or from her own hold on the character, she emanates a paradigmatically Isabel-ish blend of implacable drive and palpable self-doubt, unimpressed by lofty surroundings but frequently on the edge of tears. To Die For gets all the credit for announcing the platinum-class actress inside the under-challenged starlet, but everything we know about Kidman now—her responsiveness to demanding auteurs, her remarkable openness with scene partners, her ability to hold the screen alone and in silence—emerged much more fully here. Martin Donovan and Barbara Hershey, who at least picked up a few critics' prizes, belying the impression that nobody caught what Campion was after, offer a Ralph and a Merle that will never be topped (and Hershey, too, had to wait out Campion's assiduous courting of other actresses).

Fellow professors know that we sometimes invent whole syllabi as excuses to teach specific works, and thus was born my "Henry James and Film" course, which I've offered at undergraduate and graduate levels and have presented at conferences and faculty pro-seminars as far away as Ankara, Turkey. That course has some unusual assignment structures, including letter-graded single sentences, responses to novels we only read part of, and requirements that students write three convincing, meaty, and disparate introductions to three possible essays about The Wings of the Dove or The Portrait of a Lady rather than a full-length paper about either of them. Partly these deviations from the norm were inspired by teaching in nine-week terms, which make James's dense novels all but unteachable and seminar-length papers almost unwriteable. Partly they were inspired by a pure desire to shake up my pedagogy, and break students out of calcifying habits. Partly they were prompted by James himself, who surely teaches us, if he teaches us anything, that the sentence—not just the paragraph, the plot, the work as a whole—can be the venue for astonishing creativity and inimitable perception. But mostly I designed them in the graven image of Campion and her humbling collaborators on The Portrait of a Lady, who taught me that sometimes the best way to face and even honor the familiar is to trim it, freeze it, flip it, take risks with it, even spike it with something nobody else would pour into the punch. Not that subversive gestures are ends in themselves: they ought to reveal something in the material, accomplish something for the reader or viewer, as Campion's do. And again, she isn't always subverting, though there are worse reputations to have. In any case, I'd rather my students generate ideas, odd but compelling ideas, even a surfeit of ideas, than execute just one in a carefully lacquered way that won't upset anybody. To avoid being ladylike and to be, instead, Lady-like. I want the same for myself.

Hey, Reader: What movie do you relentlessly champion despite a generally cool reception? Or what film strikes you as a vigorous take on a book or story you adore, even if it played to other viewers as a forfeit or a disappointment?

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