Delicately constructed, marvelous to look at and poignantly elegiac, “The Woodmans” is both a heartbreaker and a big wet kiss to anyone who owns the work of Francesca Woodman. C. Scott Willis’ documentary spins a portrait of the late photographer via her images — which are marvelous — and interviews with her art-inclined family: her mother, ceramics artist Betty; her father, painter-cum-photographer Georges; and her brother, electronics artist Charles. Look for exposure at art-film fests, cable outlets and the occasional indie house.
Artist bios are usually about myth-making; the art market runs largely on myth. “The Woodmans” has its eye on both. Willis is more than coy in his attempts to create mystery about the gifted, ethereal and conscientiously eccentric Francesca, but his film is clearly in the obituary business from the moment it begins.
Willis gives wide and beautifully composed exposure to the work of all the Woodmans, a family whose guiding ethos was art, all the time. Had Francesca wanted to be, say, a pipefitter or a cosmetologist, that never seemed to have been an option. Her chosen medium was photography and, as we see in the film — and are told often — she was ahead of her time, creating dreamy, multilayered, confessional photographic art in which she stripped herself, physically and psychology, with no small amount of nerve.
Listening to parents talk about their dead child, whether she was tremendously talented or not, is heartbreaking, even though the surviving Woodmans have had 30 years to grieve and seem to have accommodated themselves to Francesca’s death by defenestration in 1981. They are also at times brutally frank, admitting to a kind of competitive relationship with their late daughter, who, by opting out of life at the age of 22 (five days before the biggest show of her father’s career), became a figure of romantic tragedy and commercial viability. That George Woodman is currently engaged in a style of photography that starkly mirrors that of his child, replete with nude young women, is the kind of moment “The Woodmans” does best — pure observation of the overripe moment.
Tech credits are tops, notably the shooting of d.p. Neil Barrett.