Vivid `Artemisia' Blends Art History, Sex Scandal

By Arnold, Gary | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 15, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Vivid `Artemisia' Blends Art History, Sex Scandal


Arnold, Gary, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


"Artemisia" takes a while to generate an effective melodramatic undertow. Once it does, this French import, booked exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle, accumulates an impressive mixture of historical evocation and ominous romantic pathos.

Indeed, director Agnes Merlet's flair for impassioned catastrophe in a bygone setting improves on some of the strongest attributes of "The Return of Martin Guerre."

Stylistic affectations and anachronisms loom large at the outset, even when miniaturized. The credits, for example, call attention to tiny, lower-case i's, evidently to stress the double meanings in a biographical saga that depicts the growing pains, erotic and creative, of an aspiring artist.

The young actress Valentina Cervi is encouraged to appear bold and irrepressible in the early scenes as the title character, Artemisia Gentileschi, a precocious and uniquely privileged but also notoriously disgraced Italian painter of the early 17th century.

It takes the impact of her first love affair, an illicit union with Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), an esteemed landscape painter and confirmed libertine, to sober up the protagonist in elemental and sympathetic ways.

Miss Merlet seems to flaunt a premature poster girl for women's liberation while introducing Artemisia, the talented and impulsive teen-age daughter of a successful Roman artist, Orazio Gentileschi.

The father, a specialist in portraits and allegorical subjects, is portrayed with indispensable vulnerability and wounded pride by Michel Serrault. Although Artemisia was destined to sustain a painting career that defied convention and custom in her time frame (1593-1652), she also was implicated in a harrowing sex scandal at a tender age.

The movie envisions Artemisia becoming Tassi's willing romantic conquest at age 18 while still residing with her family but apprenticed to her seducer, who was collaborating with her father on a series of church frescoes. The authentic Artemisia may have been even younger. Miss Merlet links the heroine's sexual initiation to a precocious masterpiece, a candidly homicidal depiction of the Assyrian general Holofernes being beheaded by the Israelite widow Judith.

A former art student and aspiring painter, Miss Merlet proves adept at linking carnal knowledge to the graphic violence that distinguishes Artemisia's painting.

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