breathtaking paintings are chronicled through her love affair
with charismatic photographer Alfred Stieglitz, her breakdown
after learning of his infidelity and her eventual self-discovery
in Taos, New Mexico. A captivating drama for both fans of
her work and those new to it, Georgia O'Keeffe is a must-see
If you've seen any of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings, you'd agree that she was probably one of the most compelling American artists of the 20th century. There was a certain wild energy, a dynamism about her representations of her surroundings- be it of flowers, cityscapes or other landscapes. This made-for-television movie is the first to attempt to shed light on the enigmatic painter, and while its intentions are certainly noble, it falls far short of anywhere near definitive.
Better known for his supporting roles, director Bob Balaban has created a dull portrait of a vibrant and vivacious person that doesn't do justice to the person or her works. Working off a script by Michael Cristofer (Original Sin, Casanova), this biopic focuses almost singularly on the influence that Alfred Stieglitz, a gallery owner and photographer who was one of the first to exhibit O'Keeffe's paintings, had on her subsequent works as well as her life.
This was the man whom O'Keeffe would fall deeply in love with, even though he was married. This was the man whom O'Keeffe would marry soon enough in 1924. This was the man who publicly displayed nude photos he had taken of O'Keeffe as a publicity move without seeking her consent. And this was the man whose infidelity with another woman would devastate O'Keeffe immensely, resulting in her move to New Mexico which became one of the foremost inspirations for her paintings.
Much of the time in the film is devoted to delineating the complex relationship between O'Keeffe and Stieglitz- how Stieglitz helped garner the media attention that O'Keeffe needed in her early years to let others notice her, how her love for Stieglitz would influence her paintings, how his adultery would change the course of her life and her works. It's not possible to tell the whole story of a person's life within a movie- to even try to do so would be foolish- and rightly so, this biopic doesn’t attempt to do that. But this biopic does the opposite- it focuses too intimately on a certain detail in a person's life and tries to explain his or her life through that single lens.
As a result, the film becomes myopic, spending too much time on O'Keeffe's tragic romance with Stieglitz and not enough on the influences of her paintings. By the end of this relatively brief 89-min movie, you'd still be left clueless how her surroundings influenced her paintings, as they no doubt did, acknowledged only briefly by her awe when she moves to the ruggedly beautiful New Mexico desert. By forsaking the raison d'ętre behind O'Keeffe's inspiration, this biopic about a unique artist loses the very reason why she and her works were so special.
The movie is made more staid by Balaban's deliberate pacing, which will likely test the patience of many viewers. Taking a decidedly dignified approach to his subject, Balaban is content to let his audience remain as a detached observer throughout the film, so one doesn't feel much involved in the emotional turmoils of his characters. And that is despite the best efforts by both Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, both of whom give splendid performances that are worthy of the awards that they have been receiving so far.
This biopic was fortunate enough to receive the blessing of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, and many of the authentic locations and artworks on display in the film bear testament to that- which is also why it's a even greater disappointment that it doesn't take the opportunity to delve deeper into the inspirations behind O'Keeffe's artworks. Those acquainted with her works may be keen to take this as a starting point to explore her equally interesting life- but to expect more will just leave you dissatisfied.
SPECIAL FEATURES :
Portrait of an Artist: The Making of Georgia O’Keeffe- This plays less like a ‘making-of’ than a cast and crew interview about why they decided to make this movie and how they tried to make the film as authentic as possible, e.g. filming in real locations thanks to the generosity of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 makes use of the back speakers to deliver ambient sounds wherever possible in this mostly talky picture. The visual transfer is crisp and clear, and the colours of both O’Keeffe’s paintings and the landscapes look rich and alive.
by Gabriel Chong
Posted on 25 May 2010