2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ (Jane Campion, 1996)


How different are the voices of female filmmakers than their male counterparts? When Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing The Hurt Locker in 2010, the tone of the conversation was as much about how to improve gender equality behind the camera as it was the kind of films that women make. While most Oscar wins elicit some pushback, the tone that dominated Bigelow’s was apprehension. Best known for American Psycho, author Bret Easton Ellis suggested that Bigelow only won due to her gender and that the film was not very good, ultimately suffering from a “female tone.” Even critics who praised the film couldn’t help noting how gender played a role (or not), such as Pete Hammond, critic for the Los Angeles Times, saying “She made a movie that looked like it was directed by a man.” In an article for The Daily Beast, Nicole Laporte questions this logic and asks, “But does that mean that had Bigelow made Under the Tuscan Sun she wouldn’t have been nominated?”

The idea of a female voice, a unifying tone or perspective, has its own set of problems. With so few female film directors working regularly within the industry, many feel the need to search for a unifying identity between them. Do women make films that are different from men? Well, yes and no. Part of it is opportunity: few women ever have the chance to make films that are about men, well, few women have ever had the chance to make films, period. Whenever a large franchise of books with a female audience has been announced, it seems like Hollywood scrambles to find a female director to test the waters, as they did with both Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. (While successful financially, the directors were more or less disgraced and replaced, in both cases, with a man in the follow-up.) This sort of niche behind the scenes casting serves to doubly condemn the opportunities of women filmmakers, as Hollywood still frets and worries about the potential success of female-helmed films, and women lack representation on the screen.

Women’s voices have long been relegated to the sidelines: we are unrepresented and pop culture-entranced in the female experience more quickly dismissed as niche, trivial and unexciting. Walt Hickey explored this phenomenon by looking at the numbers in his piece “Men Are Sabotaging The Online Reviews Of TV Shows Aimed At Women,” observing what many women already know: men, who dominate the world of opinion (formally and informally, this tangentially touches on the fact that the world of film critics is still overwhelmingly male), are quicker to dismiss TV aimed at women. Hickey doesn’t assign too much time to answer why this is, preferring instead to let the numbers speak for themselves.


In Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, the 1996 adaptation of the Henry James novel, the representation of men’s toxic behavior becomes tantamount to the narrative. It becomes frighteningly obvious, as much of pop culture aimed at women, to some degree or another, strips men of their self-perceived heroism. Many beloved films of the canon are about damaged and imperfect men, but at the end of the day, they are often celebrations of a man’s freedom, personality or artistry. Seen through the eyes of a woman, these men lose their attraction and are exposed as abusers or fools. The subtle denigration of the male fantasy reveals the fraudulent fascination with the damaged male psyche. Women also rarely see themselves as the protagonist in their own life. Isabel fights (at least initially) to shift that narrative but ultimately falls victim to playing a supporting character in her own destiny.

Writing about the film and taking down some of its flaws, Roger Ebert asks a crucial question: “Why, for example, does Isabel marry Osmond? In the novel there is no mystery. He is an Artist — able to pose, at least during their courtship, as a man who lives on a higher plane. In Campion’s film, Osmond is never allowed the slightest plausibility. Malkovich plays him as a snaky, sinister poseur, tobacco smoke coiling past his hooded eyes. The crucial distinction is: In the novel, Isabel marries him because she is an idealist, but in the movie because she is a masochist.”


Ebert is right about the shift of Isabel from idealist to a masochist, but this is not necessarily a flaw. It also does not mean that Osmond (John Malkovich) has no appeal. Campion’s cinema stands out as a pivotal example of how women can treat stories and characters differently by revealing how some women see men. Having Osmond stripped of his appeal (except for the magnetism that John Malkovich brings to the role) has a more truthful impact than a man who can be measured by his plausible appeal due to being an artist. Osmond is appealing to Isabel because of his sexual appeal and domineering spirit. This fantasy, of course, is revealed to be a nightmare and Isabel eventually fights back to free herself to live the life she had imagined.

The treatment of Osmond as sexually appealing differs greatly from most virile men in mainstream cinema. He possesses no obvious qualities of affection or power and is not measured by the women he adores. Most men frame romance through the physicality of sex, through a beautiful woman’s body — we understand a man’s hunger not by how he speaks or how he treats her. In The Portrait of a Lady, Osmond taps into women’s self-effacing desires. Isabel, who wants to see the world and to escape love and engagements, ultimately feels drawn in by the fact that Osmond will consume that part of her. She agrees to the engagement because her money gives her the illusion of the upper hand in their dynamics, but she chooses him in the secret hope he will erase her will. Sex, when loaded with the dynamic of sadomasochism, always seems to be in the pursuit of losing yourself. With great sex, your thoughts fade and your consciousness becomes replaced with sensation. But when the adrenaline dissipates, you’re left alone with your thoughts once again. Campion would revisit many of these ideas with In the Cut, having Mark Ruffalo embody a similar role as John Malkovich does here.


Jane Campion balances this heat of desire through restraint and a certain coldness built through her use of widescreen and symbolism; a cracked cup and a rippling canvas hold so much weight in building the tense atmosphere of the social performance. Osmond, as an artist, seeks to form the women around him into living works of art. Nicole Kidman fits this role beautifully, as she already looks like a great painting by John Singer Sargent, and transcending ego, she cries until her face turns red and swollen. The cracks come to the surface, the realities of her emotional world come alive. The frame keeps everyone at a distance, and even lovers seem to occupy entirely different rooms when in deep conversation.

Campion’s work is unfriendly, especially towards men. Her filmmaking reveals the cold callousness that men are capable of as they revel in their exercises in power. The brutality of visions unsurprisingly alienates men, who are so used to seeing the mirror of their own experience on screen without the tone of admiration. As if those who take what they want are not really hurting anyone, Campion paints the silent and restrictive world of women, wrought with painful desire and explosive danger. The Portrait of a Lady is an underestimated and powerful portrait of women’s lack of choice and men’s power to take.

While not an argument that fits all examples, there has to be something to the fact that the vision of men in female oriented or helmed cinema makes them uncomfortable. It pokes a hole at the fantasy of their freedom and take-all attitude that has long been upheld as an ideal. We treat the desires of men as not only more important but even worth upholding even as it harms or destroys those around them. Campion excels at revealing the elements that men don’t see in themselves that women find appealing, while also turning the tables and revealing the darkness of a society where men are always right. She offers an uncomfortable truth that many people do not want to face.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.