film review: THE WOODMANS

Directed by C. Scott Willis
Produced by Neil Barrett, Jeff Werner & C. Scott Willis
Released by Lorber Films
USA. 82 min. Not Rated

Imagine growing up in a family of brilliant artists, a household where nothing else really matters other than creating objects of beauty. The Woodmans is a documentary that will give you a peak at what that experience might be like; the uniqueness and the beauty, yes, but also the scar tissue as well.

Betty and George Woodman married back in the 1950s. He was brought up in a WASP New England family. When he brought Betty, a Jewish Bohemian artist, back home, George’s family rejected them outright. The two went on to get married despite that, and they created an insulated life of their own, greatly helped along by their complete immersion in their art—for Betty, spectacular ceramic art; for George, painting on canvas. They also created two beautiful children: a boy, Charles, who would go on to become a video artist, while their second child, an intense, pretty girl named Francesca, would become a photographer.

Director C. Scott Wills / Photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2010

C. Scott Willis’s compelling documentary really centers on Francesca’s tortured and brief life through the recounting of the surviving three Woodmans and a small number of close friends and schoolmates. The film, which debuted at Tribeca Film Festival last year, soberly makes sense how Francesca, an incredibly talented artist—perhaps the most talented among her family—lost a battle, like so many others prone to depression and despair, and committed suicide at the age of 22. She would leave behind a trove of amazing photos and experimental film footage that eerily looks into the mind of its tormented creator.

The most unsettling part of the documentary is Betty’s matter-of-fact retelling of the tragedy and her response to the aftermath. As viewers, we have become accustomed to the tears and dramatic walk-offs in countless films. Betty refuses to show the profoundly personal sense of pain and loss she must have endured, and indeed, must continue to endure.  How, after all, can a parent not blame themselves for the suicide of a child? But as Betty explains it, she could only have been the mother she was and loved her daughter the only way she knew how. Charles was ostensibly closer to Francesca and more identifiably affected by her death. This is most evidenced by his embracing photography after his daughter’s suicide. What better way to connect to her memory than to pick up where she left off?

Despite the disturbing nature of Francesca’s story, Willis wisely captures the construction of Betty’s newest work that unfolds over the course of the film, a large-scale multi-medium installment commissioned for the lobby of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Seeing both Betty and Charles still so engaged in their work, their lives and their extended love affair honors Francesca’s memory better than any documentary, no matter how good, ever could.

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