Animated by highly convincing playing by Italian actress Valentina Cervi in the title role, "Artemisia" is an impassioned yarn of sexual and artistic yearning that's a treat for the eyes but doesn't play as many major chords on the heartstrings as it should.

Animated by highly convincing playing by Italian actress Valentina Cervi in the title role, “Artemisia” is an impassioned yarn of sexual and artistic yearning that’s a treat for the eyes but doesn’t play as many major chords on the heartstrings as it should. Strikingly lensed costumer about the early days of the first known female artist looks likely to paint reasonable numbers in Europe on the strength of its cast but could prove a tougher sell on the North American specialized circuit.

In every respect, pic is a change of pace for French director Agnes Merlet, whose first feature, “The Son of the Shark” (1993), attracted attention with its severe depiction of antisocial kids. Taking its visual tone from the burnished, ocherous paintings of Caravaggio, “Artemisia” sweeps the viewer into early 17 th-century Rome, where 17-year-old Artemisia (Cervi), daughter of well-known artist Orazio Gentileschi (Michel Serrault), has been bitten by the painting bug.

At night by candlelight in her convent school, she uses a mirror on her own body to draw sketches of female nudes. Wisely, Orazio pulls her from school and encourages her talent at home. But the feisty Artemisia has more than the female form on her mind.

Encouraged by a friend (Yann Tregouet) who compliantly disrobes, she starts to enter the forbidden territory (for women at the time) of drawing male nudes. Still cutting her major slack, Orazio bullies the Academy of Fine Arts into letting her enroll — another previous no-no for women.

Combining Benoit Delhomme’s textured lensing (all blacks, browns and vermilions, with few blues or greens), a hand-held camera style and immensely detailed production and costume design, the movie summons up a tangible world of artistic endeavor, where painters vied to garner commissions and struggled to keep abreast of the latest fads and innovations.

Artemisia’s artistic passion soon finds a sexual outlet when she meets Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic), a colleague of her father and a famed libertine. The pair soon become lovers; but when word reaches Orazio’s ears, he sets in motion a legal train of events that backfires on his beloved daughter.

Much of pic is very watchable, especially in the first half, with the antsy camera style and full-blooded characters avoiding any hint of a slow-moving, stodgy costumer. Cervi, too, though looking a tad too old for her teenage role, projects a likable image of a young, driven artist completely enveloped in her own world and oblivious to the social barriers she first vaults and then finds arrayed against her. The Italo actress also performs very naturally in French.

It’s when the movie enters the love affair between Artemisia and Agostino that the audience is left as an observer of events rather than being swept along by their sexual and artistic bonding. As Agostino, Manojlovic is OK but remains something of an emotional cipher; more problematic, the pic only dips its toes into the erotic waters bubbling beneath the surface of the story, with Merlet’s direction strangely becoming more removed rather than more engaged. Ending is only mildly resonant rather than overpowering.

Other thesps are fine, with Serrault turning in a typically barbed perf as the father, though his part is underwritten in the later stages. Krishna Levy’s warm score is a good match for Delhomme’s painterly palette. Male nudity is forthright but naturally incorporated.

Artemisia

(FRENCH-GERMAN-ITALIAN)

Production

A Polygram (in France)/Miramax Zoe (in U.S.) release of a Premiere Heure Long Metrage presentation of a Premiere Heure, France 3 Cinema (France)/Schlemmer Film (Germany)/3 Emme Cinematografica (Italy) production. (International sales: President Films, Paris.) Produced by Patrice Haddad. Executive producers, Lilian Saly, Patricia Allard, Daniel Wuhrmann, Conchita Airoldi, Dino Di Dionisio. Co-producers, Christoph Meye-Wiel, Leo Pescarolo. Directed by Agnes Merlet. Screenplay, Merlet, Christine Miller, Patrick Amos.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor Rome prints), Benoit Delhomme; editor, Guy Lecorne; music, Krishna Levy; production design, Antonello Geleng; costume design, Dominique Borg; sound (Dolby Digital), Francois Waledisch, Jean-Pierre Laforce; assistant director, Alfred Lot; casting, Bruno Levy. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 9, 1997. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Orazio Gentileschi ..... Michel Serrault Artemisia Gentileschi ..... Valentina Cervi Agostino Tassi ..... Miki Manojlovic Cosimo Quorli ..... Luca Zingaretti Tuzia ..... Brigitte Catillon Roberto ..... Frederic Pierrot The Judge ..... Maurice Garrel Costanza ..... Emmanuelle Devos
With: Yann Tregouet, Jacques Nolot, Silvia De Santis, Renato Carpentieri.
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