The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Dir. Jane Campion. Starring Nicole Kidman, Martin Donovan, John Malkovich

The words don’t matter in this movie. I find that pleasingly ironic, given Henry James’ reputation as a stylist, but it’s more than just irony that makes the effacing of language so interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a traditional narrative feature where the words mattered less. It’s a liberation. There’s Isabel (Kidman) talking to Osmond (Malkovich), but the only thing that matters is the look in Kidman’s eyes, one that is very nearly outside of words itself. Her eyes are younger than her face, but the longing in her eyes is much older than the eyes themselves. It’s the scene where Osmond tells Isabel he loves her, a phrase that I think any English speaker would recognize from lips alone. In that moment, we understand why she has rejected Warburton (Richard E. Grant), deflected the amorousness of Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen) and failed to recognize the purity of her cousin Ralph’s (Donovan) affection. Over and over again she averred that she could not find a man who pleased her, that she would not marry. But something snaps in her when Gilbert makes love to her, in that old-fashioned parlance which must have been a fresher phrase in the 19th Century, and she makes a decision that no one can quite understand. They were not there to see her eyes soften and recast themselves for yearning; they did not see her turn to putty and trust Osmond like a girl with the wants of a woman. The Portrait of a Lady is a movie which I suppose fits into a number of a lineages. One could loosely fit it into a watchlist of Antipodean directors observing the development of young women in unsalutary situations , following Picnic at Hanging RockMy Brilliant Career, and Heavenly Creatures. One could consider it alongside the period pieces that swarmed prestige Anglophone cinema of the decade, as a sort of offshoot of the Merchant and Ivory brand. The right bedfellow for Portrait of a Lady is probably something like Swann in Love, another movie set in lush period trappings about someone in a bad romance, and which is likewise indifferent to what people say as opposed to how they look when they say it. Jeremy Irons leaning against a lamppost and making a face of such cringing embarrassment outweighs even the funny dialogue which accompanies it; Nicole Kidman’s eyes as she looks at John Malkovich, of all people, are far more memorable than an ILU.

If one were so inclined and feeling a little bold, one might place this picture among others for pure grandeur. The Portrait of a Lady alongside 2001, or Sunrise, or The Passion of Joan of Arc, not as an equal but as a likeminded film. Portrait is assured of a fact that too many movies have forgotten—that this is primarily a visual medium—and places everything else about itself in service of that truth. If something about the picture is successful, it is successful because of its visual insistence. I do not mean that Portrait is stylish, or pretty, or beautiful for its own sake; this is not brought to us by people who make pretty desktop wallpapers and thus surrender the all-important “moving” from “moving images.” I mean that The Portrait of a Lady is aggressively, unforgivingly focused on itself as visual art, a throwback to a time before spoken words, before movies subtracted by addition. Whether or not this improves the movie is something else entirely, but it does put the movie’s cards on the table with an admirable force, a statement of what the movie is in the business of. One of the vaguest terms in the movie critic’s satchel of adjectives is “atmospheric,” which is frequently pejorative and, perhaps appropriately, impossible to tether to anything solid. Yet if there is a movie that deserves the term, it is Portrait, and it deserves it without a hint of euphemism.

Campion differentiates herself from Merchant and Ivory with a single shot in this movie. Merchant and Ivory have a reputation for stuffiness which is entirely unwarranted, and I humbly suggest that anyone who finds their work cold to the touch needs to check on their own emotional calibration. If anything, Campion’s take on this world is one with greater emotional remove, which is not entirely to her credit, but it is a marker that sets her apart. The emotions lifted up in Merchant and Ivory are different from the visual audacity Campion bares. Consider A Room with a View, a little more than a decade Portrait‘s senior, and another movie about cold-blooded English (and their nearest progeny, cold-blooded Yankees) in Florence. James Ivory is more than happy to indulge us with how lovely Italy is, again and again giving us opportunities to see the loveliness of the countryside and the old beauty of Florence. Who can forget Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands in their window, enraptured with one another and with Italia laid out beneath them? Campion does not argue that Italy isn’t lovely, or that Florence is not splendid. Campion simply refuses to acknowledge that as its primary signifier. Florence, for Isabel, is off. And it’s off in a shot in which the camera sees the great facade of a building from an angle and then tilts ostentatiously into regular vision. Florence might be pretty, Campion admits, but it is not for Isabel. Isabel is going to be wrong there, even if it will not take much effort to pretend, with the grace of a camera returning to its typical position, that all is well. The movie is not terribly interested in whether or not the rest of the world knows that Osmond is a creep and that Isabel got hosed—this is not some Anna Karenina situation where everyone whispers about her affair with Vronsky—but it is deeply interested in the fundamental discomfort that comes when Isabel goes too far outside her ken. In England men throw themselves at her and she is sufficiently protected inside her milieu. In Italy Osmond says a few words and slithers with lugubrious confidence into her mind; in Egypt, still overwhelmed with the thought of him, Isabel faints. The next time we see her she is Mrs. Osmond.

It takes remarkable actors who can look right without saying much of value, and it’s in casting where I think this movie finds its saving graces. In Nicole Kidman’s really great career, I think it quite possible that I have described the best moment of her career in the first paragraph above, a felicitous combination of expression, situation, and buildup that elicited a gasp from me. Her passel of suitors is right in their own way, too. Viggo Mortensen has that stupid hair, but he is so good-looking that one can hardly help imagining the randiness he’s barely tamping down. On the other hand, Richard E. Grant, who wears his hair and beard so badly that he somehow seems to be balding on both sides, is the picture of a man a beautiful young woman might reject. Throughout the picture, Warburton’s aura is entirely amiable, his eyes round and bright, his smile ready. He looks like a simp, and he is a simp, but he doesn’t get under the skin of those who can find perspective. Martin Donovan’s Ralph is one of those types, and is not good-looking either. The shape of his drooping mustache would convince us from the first that he was doomed, and the shape of his heavy brow would prove to us his doleful attitude, especially when he smiles at Isabel.

Most of all, Malkovich is exactly right, one of those rare pieces of absolutely perfect casting. For one thing, we can believe him as a romantic lead despite the balding head, the average physique, the funny voice; we all saw him in Dangerous Liaisons. Campion catches him from all angles. From head-on he is almost comically inadequate for Kidman, and then from behind we see the perfect kidney bean shape of his bald spot into the last hairline he has left. His mustache against his scratchy beard is practically an optical illusion, seeming to appear and disappear at random. The sound of his voice is right, of course. (Portrait has a way with voices, too! There’s John Gielgud, sort of rumbling on in his way in a cameo; there’s Shelley Winters, whose voice…look. Her voice is like hearing a song you hated come on the radio after fifteen years of silence. It just stays inside you because of how terrible it is.) It doesn’t take much effort to believe in him as the slimy villain of the piece, even more than the not-so-disguised Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey). In that one scene where he refuses to allow Isabel to go to Ralph’s deathbed, it starts so simply. He says no, with the absolute expectation that it’ll be the final word, and then when it is not he becomes more strident and more ugly, his mouth stretching into the rounded, toothy rectangle that has always promised a verbal retribution.

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