Artemisia (1997) Misses the Mark

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Artemisia was one of those films I was half-aware of when it first came out in 1997, but somehow never managed to watch it. I’ve even had the DVD sitting on my dresser for well over a year now, and I still hadn’t gotten around to it until an article by Tonya Klowden reminded me that Artemisia Gentileschi’s very public rape trial in the early 17th century was suddenly very important in the modern context of how a woman who was violated can be doubly and triply violated by the law and public opinion if she breaks her silence. So, I had this whole idea of writing this post about connecting Artemisia’s harrowing ordeal with that of Christine Blasey Ford, Anita Hill, the #MeToo movement, and so forth.

And then I watched the film.

Just do yourself a favor if you know anything at all about Gentileschi, don’t get yourself caught up believing that this film is anything more than a nice little fantasy about a pretty young girl who falls in love with a seriously weird-looking dude who teaches her stuff about painting and sex.

If you’re expecting it to be a faithful rendition of the seminal years of Gentileschi’s late-teens wherein she was raped by her tutor and then pursued him in court for restitution, you’re going to be seriously disappointed.

For starters, this guy in the promotional images isn’t Artemisia’s love interest. He’s just a random kid Artemisia knows and tricks into undressing for her so she can draw him naked.

It’s this guy. Who does look a lot like Holofernes, but other than that, I’m not seeing the attraction here.

I definitely can see the resemblance.

For those of you who were not there, Artemisia follows a fairly standard formula: It takes a really interesting historical female character and then completely disregards the actual story and inserts some ridiculous fantasy-made-up-bullshit that entirely strips the history out and replaces it with a puerile sex-romp filled with beautiful naked bodies and some high-minded nonsense about true love or whatever.

Artemisia goes one step further, because not only does the film denude the content of historical facts, it completely flips what was arguably the most significant and defining moment in Artemisia’s life — the sensational rape trial brought against her tutor — and makes it about a forbidden love story between said tutor and Artemisia. Instead of Artemisia bravely accusing the man who raped her, even withstanding torture to get her to recant, the film makes Artemisia the one who pursued and convinced Tassi to become her lover and then when her daddy found out and hauled him before the court for raping his daughter, she bravely refuses to accuse Tassi of rape, even under torture. Tassi then valiantly makes a false confession to save Artemisia, and the lovers are forced to part ways forever.

And that whole “Tassi looks like Holofernes” angle comes into play in a big way in the turning point in the plot, but instead of Artemisia channeling all of her rage over being raped into the canvas (as is the current interpretation among art historians), the film tries super hard to make the connection between Artemisia’s pain over being parted from her true love by painting his face as one of Western mythology’s most notorious rapists.

Yeah…

So, what about the costumes? Well, they’re pretty decent, so I can at least give the film some credit for that. Costume designer Dominique Borg definitely was taking cues from Gentileschi’s artwork for Artemisia’s costumes.

Artemisia’s outdoor studio. Even with the considerable issues I had with the historicity of this film, I did love the way the set design and lighting worked to create the feeling of having stepped out of a Genteleschi painting.

Artemisia painting her famous self-portrait, outdoors in natural light. Another thing that I can give credit to this film for is not inserting crappy re-paintings of these famous portraits. This is a reproduction of the actual painting, not made to look like Valentina Cervi.

I was pleased to see lots of high-waisted bodices, as is appropriate for the first quarter of the 17th century.

After basically going in dry and taking her virginity to great pain and bloodshed, Artemisia returns to paint Tassi and then teaches him how to please a woman. I don’t know about you, but none of my art lessons went like that.

Artemisia begins sketching Judith and Holofernes before she sleeps with Tassi. The timeline just doesn’t work here.

Artemisia delivers the cartoons she sketched for her father.

Does it irritate you when rape is whitewashed as a love story between two misunderstood lovers? Rant about it with us in the comments.

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

20 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I’ve seen it too and thought how disgusting the patriarchy making her seminal moment into a love story and not the truth. As long as ‘Hollywood’ is able to get away with this, women will suffer.

    Rape IS NOT love.

    There’s a pretty good historical novel on Artesmesia by Susanne Vreeland called The Passion of Artemesia.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Here’s the kicker… Artemisia was directed by a woman whose stated objective was to give her back her voice.

      By erasing the fact that she was raped by an older man who took advantage of her vulnerability as both his student and a young woman with no rights of her own. Even her father had to bring the charges against Tassi because Artemisia couldn’t do it herself.

      Reply
  2. florenceandtheai

    I wanted to love this movie. Artemisia and her contemporaries like Sophonisba Anguissola are phenomenally interesting in their own right. I knew the general outline of the trial, and that they specifically inflicted punishments to her hands because she was a painter. I was incensed that the director flipped the motivation. I don’t generally mind some liberties (I’m fine with Arwen’s portrayal in the LOTR movies as they gave her actual agency) but this felt viscerally wrong. The director’s (Agnes Merlet) explanation felt vapid at best. Sorry, I don’t usually get quite so worked up.

    Reply
    • LadySlippers

      Some liberties yes, not a whole fabrication of what happened. That’s gotta stop.

      Reply
  3. LadySlippers

    Thank you for giving me the heads up to take a hard pass on this movie. I adore Artemisia and how she boldly took on society even though she knew she couldn’t win. I love how autobiographical her art is — I very much feel represented in her art. I have a whole bunch of non-G rated words and feelings for people that twist rape and exploitation to suit patriarchy’s whims. Nope. Nope. Nope!

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      One of the things I loved the most about the film was that it really did have a lot of correlations to Artemisia’s works. There’s a scene where she’s at the Academy with her father, and she’s waiting outside while her father asks for her to be admitted, and these two students are harassing her. It was framed almost straight out of Susanna and the Elders painting.

      It just kills me that a film that clearly had paid really close attention to the Artemisia’s art could just flagrantly dismiss her actual history.

      Reply
  4. Tanya Klowden

    Thank you for watching this so we don’t have to. Sadly, “Artemisia gets a sexual education” is a very common 20th century portrayal of the artist. I hope you don’t mind if I share the link to the recent article on Artemisia’s trial since it seems to be a bit more relatable to too many women’s experiences.

    https://qz.com/quartzy/1413735/

    Reply
  5. Nzie

    This really irks me. We all understand filmmakers often can’t fit everything into a film. But speeding up the timeline or condensing the number of characters is fundamentally different from stuff like this. And it falls hardest on those already-underrepresented groups, where they become stereotypes or passive victims or both. Awful. It would be great for her story to be really told. An author once described tradition as the democracy of the dead; it would be good if films were dedicated to preserving that idea, of letting historical persons be historical, in their own voices and perceptions (in line with the many great points in the article on this site about how to make a feminist film—such as showing the reality of women’s lives), and not fit our ideas about “forbidden sex is so sexy” or “see how downtrodden they were,” etc.

    Reply
  6. Cristy

    Artemesia is one of my favorite painters of all time, she was a badass in so many ways and I really look up to her. She had the courage to do what I couldn’t and I just took comfort in the idea of her. I’m so glad I never watched this movie. I’m literally misty eyed just thinking about how horrible it is to make her RAPIST her secret lover. It’s so close to home. Thank you for the warning

    Reply
  7. Katie

    Tassi also looked like Sisera, and like the younger creephat in ‘Susanna and the Elders’. The movie had so much potential, and then mishandled the rape and trial so badly.

    Reply
  8. Aleko

    I’m speechless. How could they? How could they? And a woman director too? That’s way beyond crass; it’s a betrayal.

    Not even for accurate 17th-century costuming and decor could I bring myself to watch this.

    Reply
  9. Joanne Renaud

    Oh my God, I am so happy to read this! I remember back in the late ’90s I was so excited hearing the buzz about this movie… and when I finally read the reviews, I was enraged. And it got positive reviews from Roger Ebert, of all people! And it seemed that I was the only person bothered by Artemisia’s life being twisted like this– the story of her rape trial, and how she fought to bring Tassi to justice– and it being turned into a story of “forbidden love.” Are you f*cking KIDDING me?

    Thank you, Sarah. At last I feel vindicated!

    Tassi was really a scumbag– he most probably murdered his wife too. If you’re going to watch any movie about Artemisia, avoid this movie like the plague and watch Michael Palin’s excellent documentary Quest for Artemisia.

    Reply
  10. Diana

    It’s so jaw-dropping my disrespectful. Can someone make a real Artemisia movie already?

    Reply
  11. Gosia

    Thank you much for the sentence “Does it irritate you when rape is whitewashed as a love story between two misunderstood lovers?”. Because I feel the same! I could puke when rape is described as “passionate” and “sexy” in e. g. romance or historical novels! There is even the term “forced seduction” for this sick plot twist when a male character (who is attractive of course …) starts to be sexually aggressive towards the heroine and she, after initial self-defence, starts to like it. WTF! What’s worse, this shit was written by women! How stupid must these women have been to publish their fantasies and thus to perpetuate the sick idea that rape is no serious crime.

    Reply
  12. Graham Christian

    After terrible movies like this, and about Sor Juana, and…all the others, I have pretty well given up on movies about women in the 17th c. Film makers just can’t seem to trust the material. Making AG’s rapist into a hero betrays her again. Aargh!

    Reply
  13. Marie McGowan Irving

    I had managed to erase the memory that this travesty had ever existed from my memory. In the days before the internet, the only way I got to see films that weren’t Hollywood blockbusters was my local art house cinema, which, IIRC, withdrew this film after protests from the art school students whose campus was pretty much right next door!

    Reply

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