Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady may be seen as a corrective to her  film The Piano--or at least to the prevailing interpretation of it as an uncomplicated paean to erotic awakening. An iconoclastic adaptation of Henry James's novel, The Portrait of a Lady begins with the voices of modern-day women speaking of sex and romance. "It's about finding... the most perfect mirror, the most loyal mirror," croons one. "When I love, I know he will shine that back to me." In blue-tinged black and white, swoonily ripe and receptive young women gaze into the camera. And then a hand directs the eye to a portrait of their 19th-century sister, Isabel, framed in English greenery--as fresh and idealistic as any lamb gamboling merrily to slaughter.
Campion jumps into James's story after Isabel Archer--the American niece of a wealthy émigré businessman in England--has already turned down two eminently suitable suitors: eager American Casper Goodwood and fine, intelligent Lord Warburton. "It's not my fate to give up," Nicole Kidman's wonderfully arrogant Isabel explains to her consumptive cuz Ralph Touchett. Isabel sees what marriage offers her--protection, stability, domesticized sexuality; she wants to experience what it protects against, "the usual chances and dangers." Moved and curious, Touchett (Martin Donovan, delectably wry) arranges for his father to leave Isabel a "fortune," and off she goes to embrace her fate.
Like James, Campion has surrounded Isabel with appraising eyes. Bright, but not threateningly so, independent yet naive, the lovely Isabel attracts connoisseurs of both beauty and intellect. Isabel's smart enough to know she will be unsatisfied existing in only the sensual realm (with Mr., uh, Goodwood) or the intellectual (with Warburton); she's raw enough, though, to mistake a sophisticated, artifice-steeped sensualist for some happy blend of the two. Set up with Isabel through his (ex-?) lover and procuress Madame Merle, Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich, playing his usual manipulative creep, though very well) sees that the heiress is too used to adoration: He seduces her with her own fear--and need--of losing control, during a harrowing, blue-lit scene in a dungeon-like room full of skulls and shadows.
Touched so deeply, Isabel leaves on a world tour only to find Osmond's face superimposed on every landmark (in a cheeky, silent film take-off that's equal parts Rudolph Valentino and Spellbound). When she returns and accepts Osmond, the film's vivid golds and greens, reds and blues, dim like Kidman's lively copper hair into a polished coil of muted, nearly black tones. Her unexamined, obsessional desire has led her away from the world into the tomb of Osmond's care, where he does his level best to "stupify" her as she puts it, to turn her into a graceful marble statue. There's an amazing scene in which Osmond, camera tracking in front of him, moves through the great house bought with Isabel's inheritance, giving orders as if the others were stagehands and actors in his play; the sequence concludes with a still-life portrait of a man and the wife and daughter he's remade in his image--cold, calculating, thoroughly controlled.
But Campion's film is not just about moral corruption. Indeed, what most fascinates about the descent of both Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey, achingly precise) and Isabel is how much their lust for Osmond paralyzes them. They've helped build their own cages, helped stupify themselves. When Isabel eventually breaks loose, she runs to Ralph, whose body is nearly as dead as her mind had become. For all the vicarious pleasure he has taken from her life, Ralph always encouraged her freedom; because he has always been dying, he has loved her with his hands open. Her hair once again aglow, Isabel comes to her "best friend" passionately, at last attempting to craft a relationship that reconciles sexuality and mindfulness. But he is dying now. "Is there no hope?" Isabel asks his mother. She means for herself as much as for him. "None whatsoever," comes the response. "There never has been."
The Portrait of a Lady is strewn with mirrors; Isabel will wait until Ralph (and she too!) is near death before she looks into one straight on. The camera is also a mirror, as are, in their way, movies--the notion behind Campion's prologue. But mirrors can be very deceiving. Sometimes a mirror has his own ideas; sometimes you see only what you want to see. I've read two critiques of this film: The first deemed it suffocatingly "embroidered," the second, "distant" and chilly. Portrait seems to me instead finally balanced between hot sensuality and cool intent, more so by far than the almost ecstatic Piano. It's as if the film's technique warns, with its story, "Don't fall (for cinema romance) absolutely. Pay attention to how you are wooed. Watch yourself."
Even while she has maintained James's reserved empathy, Campion has changed the shape of this story by forefronting the book's background of psychosexual drama. In the end, James sends Isabel back to Osmond. But Campion leaves Isabel on a threshold, thinking. Critics have read that frozen pose as despair--Isabel's realization that what she needs is impossible for a woman of her time. Yet I felt not horror but relief that Isabel was finally free of the defining male gaze, relief that she seemed to be focusing inward, on her most perfect mirror. Before that moment, before Goodwood interrupts her with his last desperate proposal, Isabel is walking in the English snow and repeating the phrase "I adore...," as if practicing knowing all her desires. Might it not be Campion's point that winter, and other deaths of this nature, leads to spring? CP
The Portrait of a Lady is screening at area theaters.