This is a documentary film about the Woodmans, the family of one of the most renowned avant-garde photographers - Francesca Woodman. But even though the film is called “The Woodmans” its primary focus is of course Francesca, it is about her life, her work and of course her suicide at the age of 22, and its told primarily through interviews with her family and friends.
First thing to note is that it seems that this film falls in to the same trap as every other piece about Francesca. What the film does is that it almost mystifies Francesca to the point where she seems beyond human, but then again the only thing that Francesca has left behind is her work and her family – which just further fuels this image. Her work is of course the hauntingly eerie and fascinating photographs that are usually self-portraits and nudes. If anything they really show that Francesca was indeed a great and unique talent and had a wonderful eye for composition, texture and light. I should note that it’s her work that brought me to this film in the first place. Then there are also her journals and video recordings, which I can only describe as poetic insights in to her mind and together with the photographs they suggest a personality that seems very self-absorbed and attention craving. Maybe even narcissistic.
This notion is somewhat supported in the interviews with her friends and family. We learn that Francesca was the neglected child, as her brother suffered from diabetes as a kid and got most of the attention from his parents. We learn also that Francesca had a very flirtatious and provocative nature, if that was not obvious from her work. But who knows really? This film doesn’t, as I said it does its utmost to mystify Francesca and it kind of fails to humanize her as it shows only the testimony that elates her as an artist and mystifies her inner workings. It even avoids asking some obvious questions like if Francesca would ever even have been noticed and celebrated if it was not for her tragic end? It’s a question that is barely touched upon by this film because of its obviously insensitive nature. And I’m not sure how right it was to avoid asking it.
But it’s not all about Francesca as we are also introduced to her parents and brother, all of whom are artists themselves. However I found it a very telling fact that they all work in different fields. The mother is a sculptor, the father a painter and the brother a video artist. Only after Francesca’s suicide and her posthumous rise to fame did her father, George, pick up photography. The film does note the resemblance of George’s photographs to Francesca’s work but it also avoids asking the tough questions here as well. What we do find out is that there indeed was a certain sense of competition within the family, and that living in the shadow of someone as big and enigmatic as Francesca can carry its burdens as well.
As documentaries go “The Woodmans” is a serviceable outing only saved by its fascinating subjects. But it’s a bit tragic how a film that deals with such distinct art and has such a fascinating artist at its core is just so bland and uninspired visually. However it does serve as a competent guide and introduction to the life and works and family of Francesca Woodman, even if it barely reveals anything new.
Francesca Woodman (archive footage)