'The Portrait of a Lady' Portrays Brilliant Subversion

by Jose Solis

13 December 2012

All of the women in Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady defy conventions. Even the villainess seems to take her contempt out of subversiveness.
 
cover art

The Portrait of a Lady

Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Martin Donovan, Shelley Winters

US DVD: 11 Dec 2012

The truth is all of Jane Campion’s movies could be called The Portrait of a Lady. For almost three decades the maverick filmmaker has specialized in bringing to the screen tales about women that defy the patriarchal system and devote themselves to reminding audiences that women are just as complex, fascinating and interesting as the men who occupy most studio filmmaking. All of Campion’s movies have been characterized by having strong female characters played by actresses who - before working with her - had been neglected and underused.

Think about it: before The Piano it seemed that Holly Hunter had shown us her all in the ‘80s. Before the polarizing In the Cut, Meg Ryan was seen as someone who could only play asexual sweethearts, before Bright Star no one would’ve thought Abbie Cornish had such range (sadly no one has taken advantage of her marvelous skills since) and before she starred in The Portrait of a Lady, Nicole Kidman was barely seen as something other than Tom Cruise’s wife.

The year before she starred in Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’ novel, Kidman had surprised audiences with her picaresque, devilish work in To Die For, but while that highlighted her vixen qualities, it was only in Campion’s movie where we started realizing just how vulnerable Kidman could be onscreen. The first sight we have of her is a tight close-up where we see her almost bloodshot eyes, staring deeply into the camera (and into us). As the camera moves out, she appears in a severe gown, her hair pulled back, her porcelain features both defying and breakable. She gives us the whole movie in one shot.

Kidman plays American heiress Isabel Archer, an innocent but strong willed woman set on fulfilling her desires as she turns down suitor after suitor who have been won over by her beauty and untamable spirit. Said spirit becomes the target for the ruthless Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) who befriends her only in order to destroy her innocence. She manipulates Isabel into marrying the equally vicious Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich) an art collector who turns Isabel into another of his statues, desexualizing her and reducing her so that she is nothing more than an object.

Watching the film one can’t help but wonder why James named his novel The Portrait of a Lady? Is it because he thought ladies were defined by their lack of sexual needs and their submission of their own desires in exchange for ladylike social status and marriage? Or is the title in fact a satire, a joke made to shame Victorian society into realizing that women were mistreated and judged in accordance to old fashioned values?

Knowing Campion, her intention is more likely drawn by the second question, given how she accuses our society of perpetuating said behavior. The opening sequence, just before we see Isabel for the first time, we listen to women speaking about sexual awakening and then watch young bohemian girls dancing to the haunting score. A reminder perhaps that up to the sexual revolution, women limited their own needs to what they thought society expected of them.

The film’s most controversial scene is a moment where Isabel fantasizes about three of her suitors taking her to bed at the same time. For someone whom we understand is a virgin, the very idea of bedding three men at the same time isn’t only surprising, it’s downright revolutionary. How many of us think of Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre as women with sexual needs? Campion’s sexualization of Isabel Archer is bold and challenging. Some might ask, how dare she have such dreams while others will be more willing to join her in the fantasy?

All the women in The Portrait of a Lady defy conventions. Even the villainess seems to take her contempt out of subversiveness. For all her conniving and plotting, Madame Merle fetishizes power in a way women weren’t allowed to do. She might be plotting to destroy Isabel’s innocence, but is she doing it out of mere sport? or does she want to break her in order to have her resurrect like a phoenix? That we are even willing to give her the benefit of a doubt—instead of condemning her as a monster—is proof of how cleverly Campion forever changed the way women were seen in contemporary cinema.

For all the passion it contains, The Portrait of a Lady features detached, almost cold cinematography which looks stunning in high definition. The people at Shout! Factory have delivered a wonderful transfer that makes this a more than worthy buy. It’s a shame that the only bonus features are a theatrical trailer and a grainy making-of documentary. Perhaps the distributors knew the movie would be powerful enough on its own.

The Portrait of a Lady

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