FILM REVIEW; Agony and Ecstasy, Especially Ecstasy
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Movie biographies of artists tend to promote the romance-novel proposition that most great art has its inspiration in tormented love. In this simplistic view, art is essentially passion poured into pigment, and to ''feel'' what's happening on the canvas you have to ''feel'' the agony and the ecstasy that inspired the work.
''Artemisia,'' Agnes Merlet's high-toned bodice-ripper about the early life and times of the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, fits right into the mold. This handsomely photographed film, whose indoor scenes recreate the heavy chiaroscuro of Caravaggio paintings, takes a decidedly 90's view of a woman whom feminist art historians rescued from obscurity in the 1970's. If the central character emerges as a feminist heroine for flouting patriarchical taboos, she also happens to be a tantalizing sex kitten whose artistic curiosity smacks of voyeurism.
As portrayed by Valentina Cervi, Artemisia is two distinctly different entities. One is a gorgeous early-17th-century Lolita. The other is a fearlessly ambitious teen-age prodigy who is so sure of her talent that she breaks the rules of female decorum and dares go where no ''nice'' woman of her time and station has gone before. These two Artemisias don't really fit together, but they make for a ripely sensuous portrait of the artist as a saucy but virtuous siren.
In convent school, Artemisia secretly sketches her nude reflection by candlelight. Later, determined to draw the male body, she persuades a handsome young neighbor to pose naked for her. She learns about sex from spying on a couple making love outdoors under some rocks and from peering through the windows as her scowling, bushy-browed art teacher, Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), and his friends engage in orgies with the local prostitutes who double as artists' models.
The movie has already raised some hackles by building a largely undocumented love story around a rape trial. When Artemisia was 17, Tassi, who was her father's friend, collaborator and sometime rival, was brought to trial for raping his nubile star pupil. In Ms. Merlet's version of events, Artemisia isn't so much raped as impetuously and abruptly deflowered by Tassi, who wrongly assumed from her drawings of the male anatomy that she was no virgin. By then, the movie suggests, the two were already in love.
In the movie, Tassi emerges as a callous, brutal womanizer who falls deeply in love with Artemisia while concealing his marriage. Artemisia, who is madly in love with her teacher, remains utterly devoted and unrepentant despite the social stigma of an illicit relationship. One of the movie's nastiest moments shows a brutal physical examination by two nuns to determine whether she is still a virgin.
The movie is especially good at portraying the intensity (with undercurrents of rivalry) of an all-consuming teacher-student relationship. One element of the almost mystical bond Artemisia forms with Tassi has to do with a keen visual memory that allows them to describe scenes to each other and share mental pictures that have a photographic precision.
When Tassi produces a wire grid for teaching Artemisia perspective, you feel the excitement of her discovery of a scientific method for gauging visual distance. Other revealing scenes show the laborious preparations and lighting arrangements necessary for the creation of a large-scale allegorical work.
The acting is satisfyingly full-blooded. Ms. Cervi conveys Artemisia's burning ambition as forcefully as she evokes her devotion to her lover. Michel Serrault, as her initially doting and eventually distraught father, and Mr. Manojlovic's Tassi convey the heaving anguish and confusion of powerful men coping with moral and social issues that challenge their fundamental values.
When all is said and done, ''Artemisia'' is still essentially a bodice-ripper. But it is one that also happens to have a brain.
''Artemisia'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).
It has several sex scenes, including depictions of a sexual orgy and some glimpses of male frontal nudity.
Directed by Agnes Merlet; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Ms. Merlet with Christine Miller; director of photography, Benoit Delhomme; edited by Guy Lecorne; music by Krishna Levy; production designer, Antonello Geleng; produced by Patrice Haddad; released by Miramax Zoe. Running time: 96 minutes. This film is rated R.
WITH: Valentina Cervi (Artemisia Gentileschi), Michel Serrault (Orazio), Miki Manojlovic (Agostino Tassi) and Luca Zingaretti (Cosimo).
May 8, 1998