The Portrait of a Lady

By Walter Boyd,2014-08-12 08:37
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The Portrait of a Lady ...

     The Portrait of a Lady

    The movie, based on the homonymous novel by Henry James, tells the story of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who doesn’t conform to the conventional rules of English aristocracy and struggles to build her own life, falling in love with a man who is very far from the established social schemes of the

    thXIX century. The story is set in the rigid world of 19-century England; it develops in four years, its initial

    setting is England, then it moves to Italy (to Florence and Rome) and then to England again. In the movie we meet Isabel at what could have been the defining moment of her life. Orphaned in America, she visits her rich English relatives, the Touchetts, and is immediately greeted with an interesting marriage proposal by the English Lord Warburton, but, to the dismay of many, she choses to maintain her independence: in this way she also rebuffs the advances of her American suitor Caspar Goodwood and endures the chidings of her consumptive British cousin Ralph Touchett. Thanks to Ralph, Isabel inherits a substantial fortune: this makes her an easy prey for two conniving characters: the scheming Madame Serena Merle and the greedy Gilbert Osmond, who were once lovers and had had a daughter, Pansy. Isabel falls in love with Osmond and marries him, unaware that he has chosen her only for her money and that he wants to make of her just another of his bibelots. It is not until the end of the story that Isabel realizes her mistake, but probably it will be too late.

    Even though Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady is informed by Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady,

    James aficionados should be warned from the outset that Campion does not attempt the impossibility of exactly translating the master's prose into cinematic language. Rather, she makes the story her own, transforming the classic novel into a contemporary study of a woman enduring the vagaries of her fate and eventually rising above them. Campion remains essentially faithful to the novel for most of the movie, except, as we’ll see, for the first and last sequences, and she perfectly highlights the social conventions and

    thrules of respectability around which the 19-century society turned.

    First of all, we have to say that The Portrait of a Lady is a difficult story to film, and Jane Campion

    and screenwriter Laura Jones have done an admirable job with this adaptation. Intended as an exploration of what a woman might do if she were given independent means, James' book (1881) indicts women as being trapped by a weaker nature. Exploring the same material Campion's movie comes to a different conclusion: women can be strong-willed and assert their own decisions. The motifs of love, betrayal, and accepting the consequences of one's actions are well-established. The settings and period detail are attended to with particular care; the places and houses in which the characters move result to be symbolic of their psychology and consciousness, and nature itself, through its atmospheric changes, seems to represent the changing of feelings in the characters as the story evolves. Furthermore, Campion succeeds in representing the dramatic tension of all her characters using the excellent performance of the actors, who are most of the time seen in the foreground, with a particular emphasis on the intensity of their faces and eyes. The result is a fascinating portrait not only of a lady, but of the society and marriage that entrap, then attempt to destroy, her.


    Anyway, it is clear that there are some problems with Portrait's structure and pace, which could

    easily be the result of trying to condense a 600+ page book into a one-hundred forty-five minute movie. A great deal of background is omitted, which makes the beginning of the film erratic and, at times, almost incoherent. Despite intense and probing dialogue -- the kind that makes real life feel far too simple -- Portrait leaves a lot to the imagination (even the end). There are large gaps in time the audience has to fill in. The first third -- that portion which occurs before Osmond makes his initial appearance -- is rather dull and uninvolving. Isabel's character doesn't really start developing until Osmond comes on the scene. Up to that point, she's just an independent 23-year old girl with a great curiosity for the world but not much personality.

    Most of the movie looks quite dark, with little light and a blueish color overall. In this sense, its dismal tone is even more grim than that of the novel. Quite fitting the mood, because it is a tale of an unhappy woman, who, despite her (financial) independence, and plenty of male admirers, fails in finding freedom and happiness, by making the wrong choices in life. Campion films over half of the scenes in dim light, making effective use of contrast to highlight character attributes. Isabel is frequently shown standing in patches of light while Madame Merle and Osmond keep to the shadows. Occasionally, Campion gets a little too artsy, as in the surreal, black- and-white dream sequence where Isabel's subconscious wrestles with Osmond's declaration of love. There are other strange montages and surreal sequences, in which Campion stamps the movie with a trickier, experimental visual grammar, designed to steal Isabel away from her creator. The first one, as we’ll see, has Isabel making love fully clothed simultaneously to three of her admirers in her boudoir.

    Another undeniably diverting sequence is the one in which Isabel travels the world, trying to make up her mind whether to marry Osmond: at the beginning she comes dressed in the antic caprice of a silent movie,

    than she appears naked in a 1930’s style black and white film; then, still wearing her frown, runs around the Middle East in Arab costume, and in the end there appears a plate full of talking coffee beans, which grow lips and mimic Osmond’s breathy “I-love-yous”.

    Despite the title, this story is not solely centered around Isabel and her conflict with Osmond, who is a rather empty and boring tyrant, but in all the other characters that surround her. Unfortunately, Jane Campion seems to have become too enamoured of her heroine, leaving everybody else aside. The tragic Madame Merle, cousin Ralph and Caspar, to name but three characters in the ensemble who suffer and feel, are not brought completely to life; they are all but pale sketches. This is one of the film's failings, not giving enough attention to these protagonists, relegating them to a couple of brilliant moments, so that the whole is left feeling emotionally empty.


Jane Campion serves notice that this is her work by immediately jettisoning James’ prologue and replacing it

    with one of her own. She opens The Portrait of a Lady with a black screen and the voice-over musings of

    contemporary young Australian women on love and sex, discussing the thrill of their first kiss and their


    romantic aspirations for future relationships. Then comes a wordless parade of lovely, anonymous girls, hanging out together in nature, who look directly at the camera. And then Campion abruptly shift to a close-up of Kidman’s face, as she flees the marriage proposal of Lord Warburton. Campion's intro has nothing to

    do with James' framed and plotted 1881 novel. The open and frank tone of these teenagers was considered to be at odds with Isabel's repressed desire. But this opening preface is in fact the key to Campion's interpretation of James' novel; it illuminates her own fascination with Isabel's journey from stubborn independence, to entrapment, through to self-awareness, and it establishes Campion's intention to shape James' astute, stately 19th-century story of one woman's willful spirit and, it turns out, humbling ingeniousness, to her own highly developed 20th-century feminist sensibilities. As a matter of fact, the girls' voice-overs narrate instances of feminine desire: the “exquisite” moment before a kiss as a head comes

    towards you, the excitement of another body in contact with your own, the “mirror” that is to be found in a lifelong partner, ideas that are obviously never expressed in the novel.

    As we said, when we first encounter Isabel, she's rejecting the marriage proposal of Lord Warburton in favour of a period of freedom "to experience the world," she says. She rejects Warburton, saying " I

    refused because he was too perfect […] I don't want to be a mere sheep in the flock. I shall probably never marry." When Henrietta Stackpole asks her, "Do you know where you're going?" Isabel answers, "No, and I find it very pleasing not to know." Her desire is to explore the world and forge her own way in it. Isabel and Ralph

    One of those astounded by Isabel’s decision to reject Warburton is her cousin Ralph, who also loves

    her, but keeps that a secret because he is dying of consumption: “I shall have the pleasure,”' he muses, “of seeing what a young lady does who rejects Lord Warburton.” In reality, it will be no pleasure. Aware of her

    poverty, Ralph fears her spirit will be crushed by the hard realities of Europe. He wants her to have a chance to bloom. As his father lays dying, Ralph asks him to leave a large portion of his inheritance to the young woman, saying: “I call people rich when they are able to meet the requirements of their imagination.”

Erotic fantasy

    As we mentioned before, Campion's film has to be approached as a study of interiors, not of exteriors. She puts in a few imaginative images from her heroin’s libido that the more proper James, writing in a

    different time, would not have considered for inclusion. A fantasy sequence near the film's beginning (completely absent in the novel) where Isabel imagines making love with three different men helps establish the film largely as Isabel's subjective experience, not as the story told by some omniscient narrator on whose head falls the burden of proof. Even though Isabel says to Goodwood that she plans never to marry and sends him away from her for "one or two years", the touch of his fingers on her face when saying good-bye awakens unknown desires in her. Campion visualises Isabel’s sexual desires in a fantasy erotic sequence, in


    which she imagines her suitors Warburton, Goodwood and her adored cousin Ralph lying in bed with her, kissing and caressing her face and body, or looking on with desire (Ralph). Campion is therefore explicit about Isabel's desire for this physical contact. Hence, the significance of her first 'real-life' kiss that we’ll see

     as opposed to her fantasies when Osmond declares his love for her in the shadowy depths of the

    catacombs. Despite the marriage proposal of Lord Warburton and the persistence of her American suitor Caspar Goodwood, up to this point we have not witnessed a kiss between Isabel and these men. The combined effect of the fantasy sequence and the prologue's voicing of feminine desire is to invest Osmond's kiss with a life-changing force.

Isabel and Mme Merle

    It is when Isabel inherits form her uncle a huge amount of money (70.000 pounds) that she is befriended by Madame Serena Merle, who despite her affection for Isabel cannot help feeling resentment due to the younger woman's vitality and beauty. “I'd give a great deal to be your age again, Madame Merle bitterly tells Isabel, "to have my life before me...”.

    Madame Merle first comes to our attention, as she does to Isabel's, with the sound of Beethoven played feelingly on a piano in the Touchett’s house. She is in fact visiting the Touchett family, and she immediately charms the young woman with the seeming openness of her mind, even though she is

    completely frank about her purposes, as she tells the indolent expatriate artist Gilbert Osmond: “I don't pretend to know what people are meant for. I only know what I can do with them.” Knowing what she can do

    with Isabel, and in particular with Isabel’s fortune, Mme Merle arranges a meeting with Osmond, and, as we’ll see, the net of the plots hatches by her and Osmond will be evident in every sequence of the movie.

    Isabel and Osmond

    Osmond is a fake, a decadent aristocrat, a lazy fraud with more manner than means. But Isabel, who could see Lord Warburton's flaws, cannot see Gilbert's. A single touch, a kiss shared in the deep of some catacombs, in which light beams filter from some skylights, triggers new fantasies in Isabel and is enough to

    hypnotize her and throw her into a marriage that will have terrible consequences for her. In this perspective, the scene as Osmond twirls Isabel's umbrella to hypnotize her, is interesting and outstanding as well as dark and terrifying, conveying a strong sense of drama. Campion uses here a subtle play of shadows and lights, through which she symbolizes the fact that Isabel will be completely submitted to Osmond. Isabel's desire for Osmond's touch which remains present throughout even their most brutal confrontations is the catalyst

    for a startling reversal, in a woman who claimed she shall “probably never marry”.

    According to this atmosphere, we can say that, in The Portrait of a Lady, the attraction of the sexual

    battle (as it is played out between Osmond and Isabel) is aligned with feminine naivety and immaturity, and


    also with romance but not marriage. Although Osmond is on his best behaviour during his courtship of Isabel, the signs of his ruthless authority are evident and Isabel registers but chooses to ignore them. I am thinking in particular of the scene in which he announces his love: his appropriation of Isabel's umbrella and her trembling at his presumption prefigure the later pattern of domination and fear between them. The frisson of sexual tension Isabel feels quickly dissipates after marriage and is replaced with boredom on Osmond's part and nervous fatigue on Isabel's. In this sense, there are a lot of questions that seem to remain without an answer. Why, for example, does Isabel marry Osmond? In the novel there is no mystery. He is an Artist--able to pose, at least during their courtship, as a man who lives on a higher plane. In Campion's film, Osmond is never allowed the slightest plausibility. Malkovich plays him as a snaky, sinister poseur, tobacco smoke coiling past his hooded eyes. The crucial distinction is: in the novel, Isabel marries him because she is an idealist, but in the movie because she is a masochist. This difference is fatal to the development of the story. To Ralph, she must seem more stupid than brave. Osmond himself seems more a villain here (where he is not deceived by his intentions) than in the novel (where he half-believes his lies).

    Osmond reveals himself as a tyrant, a cold and cruel man who finds joy in controlling the people around him (and his daughter Pansy in particular), and who now schemes after her newly acquired fortune, his wife’s. Believing the rather sour Osmond to be a man driven by his lofty tastes and refined sensibilities,

    Isabel becomes engaged to him against the warnings and protestations of Ralph, who contends that Osmond just wants Isabel's money. As it turns out, Osmond wants more than her money. He's a self-important sadist who wants to own her, to add her to his expansive hoard of arty trinkets. His devotion to aristocratic conventions is absolute and, as he says to Mme Merle, he thinks that Isabel “has only one fault: too many ideas; fortunately they are very bad ones…no loss if they must be sacrificed”. What ensues is a sort of psychological horror story, as Isabel slowly comes to bear the crushing weight of her decisions, realizing she is just another piece of art for his collection.

    The story leaps forward three years, to a time when Isabel and Gilbert coexist in a hateful truce, in Rome. Her cousin Ralph, visiting Rome, sees through their marriage, telling her cousin: “You were the last person I expected to see caught […] You’re going to be put into a cage […] Weren't you meant for

    something better than to keep guard over the sensibilities of a sterile dilettante?'”.

    Osmond’s brutality deepens over time. He seems to be completely without conscience, love or compassion. He is certain of his authority and means to be intimidating. The two scenes in which he physically assaults Isabel, first by standing on the back of her dress as she walks away from him, second by picking her up and roughly seating her on a stack of pillows, then slapping her face with a glove, are chilling in their mixture of measured violence and restraint. Isabel and Osmond have no possible harmonious future. Isabel's attempts to break through his icy veneer to some emotional truth simply bounce back. “You know how we live, Isabel baldly despairs at one point. Disingenuous sarcasm is his reply. He refuses to acknowledge her meaning.



    Campion employs ambiguity to suggest an incestuous relationship in The Portrait of a Lady. When

    Isabel first meets Gilbert Osmond, his teenage daughter Pansy sits on his lap. Twice Campion shows a close-up of Osmond's hands stroking Pansy's, creating a sense of uneasiness in this display of intimacy. While no further evidence of an improper relationship between father and daughter is offered, these shots establish the excessive control he exerts over Pansy, and her fearful obedience to him. As a matter of fact, Pansy is very obedient and submissive. She is in love with Edward Rosier; however, Gilbert doesn't like him that much because he is not as rich as Lord Warburton and she leaves him, because she can’t disobey what her father

    says. He wants her to marry Lord Warburton, even though he was Isabel's suitor. He just wants to become rich no matter how unscrupulous he has to be in order to ensure his success. For example, even though he knows that Pansy is not in love with Warburton, he considers this as an “insignificant little detail”, since he has educated her so that “she should do what I prefer”.

The End

    As we said, the movie is relatively faithful to the original novel, but the most relevant difference is in the conclusion, a difference that deeply influences the whole movie: in James Isabel cannot reject her duty as a wife and comes back to Osmond’s prison, conscious of having always loved her cousin Ralph and of having committed a great mistake in her life, loosing her freedom, whereas Campion leaves a final open to any possibility. If James closed his novel with a bourgeois sacrifice that was contrary to the heroine great value, Campion leaves her heroin uncertain about her future, giving her an opportunity of redeeming herself.

    As a matter of fact, after the dark truth behind Madame Merle and Osmond's deceits are revealed, Isabel awakens to an incredible freedom. In emerging from the darkness of her folly, Isabel finally breaks free of Osmond and returns to Ralph's bedside, where, while breathing his last, they both realize how truly connected they are, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and she discovers her one true love in an epiphany that sends her forth in hopeful triumph, stronger, and more selfless than she had ever imagined.

    The wrenching pathos of Isabel's last, revelatory scene with the dying Ralph is marred by a carnality that's utterly irrelevant to and, finally, reductive of their chastely Jamesian love. Significantly, the grandly ambiguous "Oh my brother!" with which Isabel mourns her cousin in the book disappears from the otherwise respectful screenplay by Laura Jones.

    The penultimate scene sees Isabel kissing Caspar Goodwood, the would-be husband who has waited many years for her. Goodwood frames the narrative, being the lover she initially fled, believing herself worthy of a greater adventure than marriage. He presents a strong contrast with Osmond, clearly the worst


    choice Isabel could have made. Goodwood is faithful, passionate, frank, and could have represented Isabel’s true happiness, but in the movie we don’t know whether Isabel grasps this opportunity of happiness or not.

    The inscrutability of character motivation was the subject of intense critical discussion with regards to Isabel in The Portrait of a Lady: what exactly is it that Isabel wants? For a moment, Isabel allows herself

    to be swept away by Caspar's passion, and we go with her. But in the end she flees and we are left with the still portrait of a lady, ambiguous, distant, cold. The ambiguous nature of Isabel's desire is expressed in the openness of this ending, as Isabel appears literally frozen on the threshold between escape with Caspar Goodwood and retreat to the oppressive sphere of the domestic: what is Isabel's final decision? The startling beauty of this final image Nicole Kidman's pale face and unruly red hair framed against the frost-covered glass panes of the mansion's door heightens the audacity of this unresolved narrative moment with which

    Campion concludes her movie.


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