Was it rape? Or love?

A new film about pioneering painter Artemisia Gentileschi has outraged feminists. Director Agnes Merlet defends her version to Robin Buss
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The Independent Culture
A rtemisia Gentileschi has a fair claim to be Europe's first woman painter; and a new film about her, Artemisia, suggests why there were not too many others in the early 17th century challenging for the title. At the centre of the film is a story about the sheer difficulty of trying to defy some of the most entrenched conventions of one's time - and about the compromises that one may have to make along the way.

Daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia grew up in Rome when life for a woman in the Papal States was highly restrictive: for example, she was forbidden to draw the nude male body - at a time when this was an essential element in a painter's training. Women were also barred from studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. It can only have been with Orazio's encouragement that she developed her talent at all; but it was indirectly as a result of his encouragement that she found herself at the centre of a scandal that was to change both their lives.

In 1611, when Artemisia was 16, Orazio asked a fellow-painter, the young Florentine Agostino Tassi, to give her lessons in perspective. The allegation is that Tassi took advantage of this master-pupil relationship to rape her. The records of the resulting trial provide most of the material around which the French director Agnes Merlet has built her film. However, as she told me when we met in Paris earlier this year, when it comes to the question of the actual rape, "the documents of the trial are open to a variety of interpretations; everything is there in the records, but you can read it in different ways, because there is a whole mass of contradictory evidence."

When the film opened in the US last year, feminists were outraged. "They thought that I gave too sympathetic a portrait of Tassi," said Merlet. "For them, he's simply a bastard."

Merlet believes that Artemisia is emphatically a "feminist" film, even though her interpretation of the character does not show her as the feminist icon that she became, especially in the US in the 1970s. "For me, she represents a more modern kind of feminism, fighting alongside men, not against them. In any case, I wanted to show a real person and not to make a film about an icon."

For this reason, it is also a film about changing concepts of art and the artist. In one scene Artemisia quarrels with her father over a client who has demanded an alteration to the painting that Orazio has done for him. Why should you adapt your paintings to suit people who understand nothing about art, she asks him; you should paint primarily for yourself. "I paint for those who buy my paintings," Orazio retorts, expressing his society's view of the artist as a craftsman supplying a market. Later, he criticises Tassi for choosing to paint in the open air, "like a peasant".

Agnes Merlet made her directorial debut in 1994 with Le Fils du Requin (The Son of the Shark), which won the Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival. She had encountered Artemisia's work when she was a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Orleans and saw the painting "Judith Beheading Holofernes": "I was fascinated by it." She was also shocked, she says, to discover that this violent image - which discards the usual convention of showing Judith with the severed head by depicting her in the actual moment of cutting it off - was by a woman; and, moreover, by a woman who seemed clearly to identify with Judith in the picture.

The reason that feminists have been upset by her film is not hard to find. Instead of being shown as a woman violated by the predatory Tassi, Artemisia (played by Valentina Cervi) is something of a romantic heroine, who finds the painter both dangerous and alluring and quickly falls in love with him. At the trial, Tassi's friends do their best to blacken Artemisia's reputation, and it finally emerges that he is already married; but, despite these betrayals, she continues to love him and the film does not portray him in a wholly unfavourable light. Indeed, he is shown to have saved Artemisia from torture, by eventually confessing that he did rape her. In fact, the film explicitly asks: "Who, of Artemisia and Agostino, is the victim of whom?"

Another thing that makes the film far more than simply a tract against repression and rape is the subtle performance by the leading French actor Michel Serrault, as Artemisia's father. He manages to convey the bewilderment of a proud man torn between admiration for his daughter's talents and a desire to protect her from harm. On the surface, this is a film with most of the qualities that one has learnt to enjoy in a well-made French historical drama: lush colour photography, attractive costumes, a literate script, pleasant landscapes and quite a bit of nudity. As one might expect in a film about a painter, every scene is carefully framed - and often literally so, as Artemisia appears with the light behind her silhouetted in doors, against windows or standing behind the wooden structure with a wire mesh that Tassi uses to teach the elements of perspective.

The rape of Artemisia, as well as being responsible for the court records which provide most of what we know about the painter, had another, indirect effect. Orazio Gentileschi was disgraced by the scandal and left Rome. Eventually, he accepted a post at the court of Charles I as court painter, which explains why his work (unlike that of his daughter) is well represented in British collections, with characteristic allegorical paintings. Work from Orazio's English period can currently be seen in a little exhibition at the National Gallery in London. This, together with Merlet's film, should help to revive interest in both the Gentileschis, father and daughter, and in the cause celebre which devastated their lives.

`Artemisia' opens on 7 May. The exhibition of paintings by Orazio Gentileschi is at the National Gallery until 23 May, and is reviewed by Martin Gayford on page 7