Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Portrait of Jennie

Portrait of Jennie (1948, William Dieterle)

Ghost, Stardust, Legend, these are but some famous and respected films that chose to combine two popular film genres: romance and fantasy. I for one generally shy away from both of these genres. Quality romance stories are, in my humble opinion, far and few between, and fantasy has really never been genre that poked my curiosity in any meaningful way. Whereupon learning that a Filmspotting message board member wanted me to watch a romance story laced in fantasy, I felt a bit uneasy, but since ‘I’m motivated by my duty!’, I figured I could at least make it through the film while only dozing off once or twice.

As the movie opens, a narrator (who subsequently disappears, never to return again after this opening scene) prepares the viewer with a rather ambiguous hint at things to come, that odd and fantastic events do, in fact, occur. The story of the portrait of Jennie is but one of these incredible stories. After this little intro, we are introduced to Eben (Joseph Cotton), a down on his luck and poor struggling artist living in Manhattan. A painter to be precise. Landscapes are what he claims to do best, but his works sell poorly. The many little art galleries are prone to shun his efforts and any occasion when a painting of his sells is a considerable relief. On this very day, he is fortunate enough to locate an art collector and seller, a certain Mrs Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) who takes interest in at least one of his efforts, and pays him an impressive 12,50$ (1948, remember). Content with his luck, Eben later takes a stroll through Central Park. It is there and then, during this cold winter evening in the park, that he meets a girl who will not only change his day, but his entire career as a painter.

Fate, or dumb luck, has him stumble upon a girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). She is perky, friendly and sweet. But her comments about her parents don’t seem to ring true. She claims that her folks are part of some kind of circus act in a New York theatre that has been closed down for several years already. She is also wearing clothing the style of which is clearly from decades past. She leaves as abruptly as he met her. Struck by her character and revelations, he decides to paint a portrait of her based from memory. Mrs. Spinney the art dealer is struck by the sheer beauty of this new piece of art and purchases the said painting for a handsome sum. Content with his growing success (he begins to find work for a few people), he is nonetheless perplexed and fascinated by Jennie who returns to him, almost always in Central Park, every few months or so, but a few years older each time. With each meeting she blossoms into a real beauty of a bird. She likes him and he likes her. But where does she come from and is Eben the only person who can see her? He must find the truth not only because it is a great mystery, but because he falls in love with her more each time she ages.

To say that Portrait of Jennie surpassed my expectations would be a disservice to the quality of the film. My expectations were relatively low to begin with. No, it would be more appropriate to simply come out and admit that I really liked this film. Virtually all the pieces of the puzzle, no pun intended, were a perfect fit. Right from the opening shots, narrated by a booming male voice, it is clear that a great many lengths were taken to provide the film with a rich, mysterious and wondrous look. The clouds in the sky, the sun light rays, the bird’s eye view of Manhattan, the opening minutes offer splendid visuals. The theme of portraits and painting haunts several outdoor shots, which are layered with the texture and look of a painting canvas. It’s looks a bit odd, but then again, the story is so peculiar that I guess the filmmakers thought ‘Why Not?’ And why not indeed. The choice of cameras angles and lighting, particularly when Jennie makes a new appearance, are not only striking for their beauty, but memorable because that very style and beauty adds to the haunting nature of the story. There is a scene occurring during the daytime on the ice rink in Central Park when Eben sees Jennie approaching her. He looks on, in the direction of the sun, which partially blinds his view of her. She is but a dark figure approaching on skates, with eerie and fantastical music playing in the background. As she meets up with him, the viewer, as well as Eben, realizes that she has grown in age since that last the two characters met. It’s a highly effective sequence, both visually and for storytelling purposes. Eben is, despite the love he feels for Jennie, haunted by her. She appears and leaves as smoothly and quickly as a ghost. For all we know she may very well be a ghost, or a bizarre fabrication whose source is the lonely state of Eben’s mind and heart. There is always something in the score, the lighting and camera angles during their encounters which hint at the fantastic nature of their relationship. What I found to be a pleasant surprise was that the film doesn’t go too far with that style. It isn’t a science-fiction tale, or a ghost story per say. That is why I say the fantastic element is ‘hinted at’ in the visual style of the film. The film teases the viewer and it is arguably a better film because of it.

The acting is quite solid all around I have to say. Joseph Cotton is tremendously well cast as the hopelessly romantic and determined Eben. He embodies the character of the charming but empty artist in the early goings very well. He has some class and comes of as someone full of potential, but feels depressed by the apparent doomed nature of his profession. When things take a turn for the better, he exudes a lot of confidence. But of course his best parts of the performance come in the later stages of the film, as Eben is racing against time and fate (no spoilers) to unlock the mystery of Jennie life. Madly in love with her but fearing that they may not see a happy ending together, Cotten is excellent. Jennifer Jones inhabits the titular role with skill. Jones shifts the intonation of her speech, the words she uses and her posture during every new scene she is involved in. As the character of Jennie grows, the acting put on by Jones must evolve as well. Not an easy task necessarily. In fact, the nature of her character reminded somewhat of Benjamin Button, even though the secret behind their rapidly changing physicality is completely different. I though Jones understood how to change her behaviour to adapt to the changing nature of her character in impressive fashion. The only scene that rang a bit awkward was perhaps her introductory scene. The character of Jennie is portrayed by Jennifer Jones, but the viewer is lead to believe that Jennie is only a child. It comes of as a bit creepy to be honest. Other than that one scene, I really liked Jones in the film.

Director William Dieterle finds the right balance between romance, mystery and fantasy with all the tools at his disposal. One genre never really takes over the other. I never had the impression that I was watching a ridiculously sappy love story, nor was I led to believe that this was an outright science-fiction tale. The mood of the film is set right from the very beginning and rarely steers off course. There was perhaps a short bit in the middle of the story when I felt a bit of momentum was lost. By the time Jennie takes Eben to visit her Catholic school, I felt the novelty of her shifting age had worn off somewhat and was worried that the film would just series of new meetings for the next while. I didn’t find the Catholic school sequence all that interesting either to be honest, which is maybe why I felt a lull in the pacing at that point. However, the moment Eben finds Jennie in his apartment one night and decides to do a full portrait of her, things really kicked into high and the pace of the narrative remained exciting until the very end. In fact, the intensity of the climax is made even greater by a bizarre stylistic choice to show it in colour. And even then, the picture is mostly covered by a tint of a peculiar green colour. It’s quite strange, but, as I mentioned earlier in this review, with such a peculiar tale being told, these weird decisions by director Dieterle all seemed to fall into place anyways. Even the prologue (of sorts) has a different colour scheme to it, this time a warm shade of brown. There are in fact four three separate colour schemes in this single movie. It’s rather nifty.

A very good romance story overall.

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