French director Agnes Merlet has found fertile ground for her soignee bodice-ripper in the scandalous life of 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, the world's first female master painter. Liberally romanticizing what historical record she could find, Merlet, with co-writer Christine Miller, tells the tale of 17-year-old Artemisia (Valentina Cervi), a fiery item who gets herself kicked out of convent school for drawing self-portraits of her naked torso, and rages in general against a world that denies her male nude models.
Artemisia's father, Orazio (a wonderful Michel Serrault), himself a successful artist, is her patient teacher. Sympathetic to his daughter's frustrations as a woman in a man's world, but mindful of social policy, he lets his daughter work on his commissions, but expects a certain amount of decorum. Still, a minx is a minx. Artemisia peeps in windows to giggle at orgies and offends the local aristocracy by asking a young noble to sit for his portrait in the buff. What ladylike behavior she can muster comes to its absolute end with the arrival of Orazio's colleague from Florence, the painter Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic). Soon after the absurdly guileless Orazio convinces Tassi to tutor his daughter in “perspective,” the latter – played by Manojlovic with all the lurid magnetism of a very attractive bear – is revealing more than the lay of the landscape. When Orazio spies the pair in bed together (looking over sketches, mais oui), a ruinous rape trial ensues.
In every visual sense, Artemisia is beautiful. Cervi is gorgeous, a woman-child with a face of deep color, plump curves and angular grace; her luxurious wardrobe and coiffure are staggering. Antonello Geleng's production design is equally lovely, with the film's interiors – the Gentileschi studio where baroque biblical scenes are staged, a church emblazoned with half-painted frescoes, Tassi's airy villa by the sea – just rough-hewn enough to cut the elegance and avoid distraction. But it's Benoit Delhomme's extraordinary cinematography that sets the film apart. This being (at least peripherally) a film about painting, there would have been plenty of opportunity to get caught up in the metaphor and stylize the picture to death. Delhomme minds his medium, however, translating the chiaroscuro sensibility of the day with delicate modulations of color and shadow, indoors and out, and a feeling that light is shining from within the imagery rather than upon it.
Yet for all its good looks, Artemisia can be a silly film. Merlet is too taken with the turbulence of the story to keep herself from being swept away by it – there's little in the way of counterpoint to its vehement emotional tone. The lack of composure is most harmful to Cervi, a good-enough actress who winds up alternating between ardent passion and nervous bewilderment. Her Artemisia gessoes her canvases with the same violent energy with which she demands her due as a painter, and brings the same breathless wonder to the sight of a couple screwing on the beach as to Tassi's dreary speech about the frame giving order to existence.
Which doesn't mean that the movie isn't fun to watch or that Merlet's rebellious pose is merely just that. In a subversion of the artist-model relationship that's as titillating as it is political, Artemisia submits to the pleasure of sex only when she gets to be on top, hovering above a supine Tassi, whom she's arranged as a model for her famous Judith Beheading Holofernes. When the two are discovered, it's Orazio who cries rape. At the subsequent trial, a torturous ordeal for all, Merlet points the finger not at an individual, but at a standard of feminine respectability that robs both women and men not only of equal, guilt-free gratification, but of control over their destinies. It's as revolutionary as Merlet gets, but many a torrid romance has been built on less.