Early in C. Scott Willis's The Woodmans, a documentary about the eponymous family of artists, one of Francesca Woodman's fellow RISD students likens the late photographer to a rock star. The analogy tickles our desire for drama and latent expectations of Basquiat-esque tragedy or Pollock-ian doom. But the story of her suicide before her work finally received the posthumous attention it deserved, and her family's coping through their respective artistic practices, shuns melodrama to maintain a very sober scale and tight focus. Beyond all the bits of art world glamour upon which Willis touches–father George brother Charlie have achieved moderate success, mother Betty a good deal more–the doc's greatest strength is its examination of grief, and the immense variety of ways in which people cope with hardship.
For Francesca, a sensuous woman and precocious artist who experienced life with all her being, soaring on highs and barely scraping her way back up from lows, art was the only way to live. We glean as much in anxious passages from her journals that Willis deploys both as substitutes for interviews with his main character, and as chapter bookends that catalyze shifts in the narrative. These eerie, troubled words are juxtaposed with her superb, mostly black-and-white photos in which she often appeared nude, as well as playful excerpts from short films she shot during her time at RISD.
After her suicide in 1981 at age 22, recounted near The Woodmans'halfway point, Willis's focus shifts onto Francesca's parents, whose competitiveness we're briefly tempted to blame for their daughter's death. Each addresses the inevitable guilt of the situation, Betty by avoiding it, George by delving into it. They both find therapy in their art, and major evolutions in their subsequent work aren't quite posited as the cure for their grief, but certainly integral parts of working through it. Though talking heads downplay the similarities between George's new work and his daughter's–he shifts from abstract paintings to photographing female models and found photos–the notion that he has taken on her vision is very alluring.
Willis refrains from such lyricism or mythologizing, though, letting the pieces hang together while leaving any tenuous or poetic connections for the viewer to make. Unlike Marwencol, another, more exceptional doc charting the therapeutic and cathartic effects of art-making, the interest here is in just how analogous to other coping mechanisms art can be. There's certainly an impulse to become lost in the beauty of Francesca's photographs, and later of her mother's massive mural project, as if suggesting that somehow the enduring beauty of great art justifies the pain of a tortured existence cut short. The impulse to find fault with a household that prizes artistic activity above all else dissipates, as each Woodman evidences a great deal of intellectual and emotional sensitivity in explicating their relationships to each other, Francesca, and their work. What The Woodmans does capture in its spry 82 minutes is a vivid, rich and intimate image of an intriguing family coping with unusual sadness in entirely relatable ways. Few of us are like The Woodmans, but most of us will live through great hardships similarly.
Opens January 19