Going into C. Scott Willis’ film The Woodmans, all I knew was that it was a documentary about a family of artists and that the daughter, Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), committed suicide. It’s definitely a subject that if left in the wrong hands, you could end up with a movie completely contrived and overly dramatized. In his first feature length documentary, Willis finds a way to avoid those annoying, “struggling, tortured artist” clichés. Rather than picking away at biographic details and obsessing over possible reasons for Francesca Woodman’s death, Willis takes the film in a far more honest and refreshing direction.
The film opens with a clip from one of Francesca’s black-and-white experimental films, where she is completely naked behind a large semi-transparent piece of paper. It then switches focus to the parents, Betty and George Woodman. They sit in front of a bright and colourful background, full of Betty’s pottery and George’s abstract paintings. Betty and George, who are both successful artists, tell the story of how they met. In between the interviews, the film occasionally cuts back to images of Francesca’s provocative photography or clips from her experimental films. The shots between Francesca’s surrealistic works are in blatant contrast to the cheerful and quirky vibe surrounding Betty and George, who seem like the cutest and most delightful couple ever. Even Betty’s clothing style is as colourful and citrusy as her artwork. This juxtaposition between shots of Betty and George and the images of Francesca’s artwork, instantly set Francesca apart.
Francesca’s photography is dark, mysterious and it gives off the impression that she was as well. Though the film does make it clear that Francesca was considered the “special” one in the family, the film refuses to let the explanation of her life and her artwork be simple and clear cut. For instance, though there are indications of an unconventional childhood, the film also shows that it was a pleasant one. Though many of Francesca’s diary entries are depressing, they are also quite witty and funny. And though Francesca’s work is eerie and at times disturbing, a clip of one of her experimental films indicates how ecstatic and happy she was when she stumbled upon a cool illusion she captured on film.
Willis has done much work with television documentaries, such as the Nova series, and he takes that more objective approach with The Woodmans. He presents a string of biographic facts and multiple views of Francesca, rather than exploiting a single interpretation of her artwork and life for entertainment. Willis does not suggest there is some hidden meaning behind Francesca’s artwork and that it is a reflection of her life. He lets the audience make up their own mind. In fact, that’s exactly what the film leaves you with—the question of how art functions for each person. Is it a reflection, an expressive testament or simply an activity to unleash some creativity? It’s interesting how the film doesn’t end with Francesca and her death. It goes on to show how the family has coped and how making art has helped each member of the family to heal and move on.
The film provides a deep sense of how important art is to the Woodmans. And even though the film is telling a personal story of this family’s life, the focus always falls back on the art itself. The traumatic end of Francesca’s life never seems to overshadow her already astounding works. A telling truth of the film’s success is that when I got home, I was far more eager to look up Francesca Woodman’s photography than her biography.