Francesca Woodman was a genius. Her black-and-white photographs, of mostly her naked and ghost-like body trying and failing to abstract itself into its environment, pack the conceptual gravitas of a Magritte, the impeccable mise-en-scène of Alain Resnais and the grainy queerness of Sadie Benning. The documentary The Woodmans investigates how such a young artist went from copiously producing exceptional photos to jumping out of a loft window in New York City at 22.
Alternating interviews with Francesca’s parents (ceramicist Betty Woodman and painter/photographer George Woodman, who seem to have always been more interested in pursuing their own art-world recognition than doing any kind of structured parenting), her video artist brother Charlie, and a handful of old friends, the film cleverly delegates the assembly of Francesca’s narrative to her own work, utilizing passages from her journal and a generous amount of her photographs and experimental videos. While Francesca’s diligent devotion to art-marking was clearly a plea for parental acknowledgment, her parents were too busy pursuing their own exterior recognition, the art world’s, with a self-consumed desperation akin to Ingrid Bergman’s in Autumn’s Sonata. They seem strangely able now to rationalize Francesca’s suicide as a kind of occupational hazard. “The psychic risk of being an artist,” says the father. But it’s the mother’s detached face that feels the most alarming. It’s as if she has channeled all of her drives to making her art, leaving nothing to be squeezed out of her body to assuage her children, her husband, her neighbors. At one point she casually confesses her envy for Francesca’s post-mortem fame.
The Woodmans, however, isn’t out to demonize Francesca’s upbringing or to play the blame game for her untimely death. It’s more concerned with displaying Francesca’s work, not only in images but also her breathtaking diary writing, whose simplicity and sensibility are somewhere between the poetry of Ariana Reines (“She is happy like a shrub”) and Ana Cristina César (“Look at my hands, empty/My pockets are also empty/My hat is also empty. Look. Nothing/up my sleeves.”). The usage of Francesca’s raw diary text (“I am falling in love with Benjamin because I like his upper lip”) over the complex iconography of her video and still image work is quite stunning—as if she were responding to the talking heads by simply bending the echo of their own speech into horrific, magnificent shapes. “I have to be sure of being desired not just tolerated.”