Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)

“Since time began man has looked into the awesome reaches of infinity and asked the eternal question: What is time? What is life? What is space? What is death?”

Wow.  Did this movie really begin with a narration like that?  An introduction showing the heavens and the clouds and speaking those heady, heady words, and quoting Eurypides and Keats, no less?  With an intro like that, you’d expect “Portrait of Jennie” to be the most philosophical and symbolic work of fiction ever conceived…which of course it isn’t, and thus that introduction where a booming voice says, “Science tells us that nothing ever dies but only changes, that time itself does not pass but curves around us, and that the past and the future are together at our side for ever” comes off as pompous, over the top and incredibly ill-conceived.  Like the blank canvas used by Joseph Cotten’s penniless artist Eben Adams to passionately draw the titular portrait, this film should’ve been a blank slate, allowing the actors, the unearthly atmosphere, and the oddly supernatural take on the romance and mystery genres to speak for themselves, allowing viewers to interpret for themselves.  That introduction is over after a couple of minutes, but it nonetheless left a sour taste in my mouth for the duration of the film – what I was looking at was a somewhat endearing story of romance and finding the will to fulfill one’s true purpose in life, and a pretty interesting mystery and quasi-ghost story, but what that introduction was setting me up for was something with a lot more depth and symbolism – the kind of stuff you’d study in a literary theory class, and this worthwhile yet relatively minor piece of supernatural melodrama was not that.  I felt gypped, and fooled into expecting one thing and getting another, but putting that aside, what you do get is flawed, but very nice. 

To its detriment, there’re plenty of lame lovey-dovey lines that’ll make your skin crawl, to the effect of “I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart” and “there is no life, my darling, until you love and have been loved. And then there is no death” and all the standard we-were-made-for-each-others in between.  In a similar vein, there are some instances in which you’ll practically be blinded by the high-key lighting emphasizing every pore of Jennifer Jones’ face, in an overdone at best, shameless at worst attempt to overly-glamorize the girl.  The bottom-line is that every high-key light in the world could’ve been shined on Jones’ face and the screenplay could’ve made use of some of the most romantic words you’ve ever heard in her interactions with Cotten, but I still wouldn’t be able to understand Jennie’s appeal or buy completely into the romance, because frankly the whole concept is just too weird for any kind of traditional romance to succeed as a narrative device.  Never mind the fact that Jennie is either a ghost or a figment of Eben’s imagination and that she grows from artist’s muse into love interest as the film progresses, consider how Eben meets her as a precocious little girl unknowingly plucked right out of the 1910s and transposed into the 1940s, and every time they meet in the park, she inexplicably grows years older, until she becomes a young woman and college graduate.  She begins as Eben’s muse, young and playful and with a crush on the older man, only to age decades in the span of a few months to the point that that crush can be consummated, and an artist/subject relationship becomes a romance.  I’m sorry, that’s just plain creepy, the thought of a man meeting a little girl and then all of sudden being able to romance the young woman who mere months before was dancing around and singing songs in the park. 

That creepiness may’ve made me shudder and made my skin crawl, to the point that any genuine passion that this romance has (and there is genuine passion, despite the dialogue clichés and what-not) is practically negated by that creepiness lurking in the back of your mind, but that could also be a testament to just how bold this film is.  In the height of the Code era, when studios were practically puritanical in dictating what was and wasn’t morally acceptable on the screen, what other film would dare to involve a grown man falling for a little girl, albeit innocently and purely for artistic innovation at first, and then for all intents and purposes consummating that love?  Even disregarding the odd romance, there’s a surprising amount of narrative subtleties at play here, making for some damn fine psychological mystery.  As far as I can remember, you never quite find out what the real deal is with Jennie – if she’s a ghost, why is Eben of all people the only one who can see her – not his friend at the bar, nor the acerbic yet sympathetic art curator Miss Spinney (played wonderfully by Ethel Barrymore as a kind of confidant and quasi-mother figure to Eben)?  If she’s a figment of the imagination of Eben, a struggling artist desperate for inspiration, how would he know all the details of her life as they happened decades before, now being relived in the mind of this mysterious apparition?  I’m glad there are lots more questions in regard to this matter than there are answers, as well as how Eben simply accepts the fact that this girl is pretty much aging in dog years and rarely questions how odd that is, and that the film simply lets him accept it without outside commentary nudging us and saying ‘look how weird this is.’  Over the course of this film, Eben quite clearly loses touch with reality, going along with the situation of the his rapidly-aging, chronologically displaced, ghostly love interest as if it were as commonplace as buying groceries.  It may not be realistic, as he investigates the mystery of what happened to Jennie at that lighthouse years before and tries to prevent it from happening again, and then at the drop of a dime try to woo what is essentially thin air, but what it is is weird, and in an era like the ‘40s when clichéd melodramas and dull romances were being churned out to theaters by the dozens, weird is good. 

I could’ve done without the green tint during the big climax – probably meant to signify that by this point Eben is way, way within his own surreal world but is just more distracting than anything – ‘cuz the way I see it Joseph Cotten’s performance perfectly represents Eben’s dogged, near-crazed determination on its own.  Always a low-key actor, Cotten’s understated dryness and wry, swaggering persona are a perfect complement for the subtle nature of Eben’s madness – his passion for Jennie becomes outright obsession, but that obsession always remains bubbling below the surface, as Joseph Cotten keeps his emotions at bay in a way that only Joseph Cotten could.  If the actual meetings between Eben and Jennie are disappointing – Jennifer Jones just being shrill whether she’s playing a child or a grown woman, and their sappy words for each other being utterly useless and detrimental to an otherwise fine film, then it’s when they’re apart, when you can feel the loneliness and feelings of worthlessness oozing out of Joseph Cotten’s stone-cold face, when this film’s really in its element.  A late scene in which Eben simply sits in his dark apartment while his friend plays the harp – yes, the harp – and sings a song with the constant refrain of ‘yonder, yonder’ is absolutely beautiful.  The harp and the singing sound lovely and mournful, the shadows palpable and the cluttered room filmed perfectly (maybe the highlight of the entire film’s great cinematography), and as Eben stares off into space – there may have never been a better actor at staring off into space than Joseph Cotten – you know exactly what, or more precisely who, he’s thinking about.  If more of this film were this ethereally beautiful and peaceful, if Eben’s loneliness and the nature of Jennie were more of an enigma instead of the film trying to turn this metaphysical mystery into a typical romance, this would’ve been a masterpiece.  As it stands, a culturally risky premise and an air of unsettling ambiguity make this into something unique, where the answers about Jennie and about Eben’s passions and desires and morality lie yonder, yonder.


1 comment so far

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