C. Scott Willis could have made a documentary about a suicide. Francesca Woodman was a beautiful young woman who took photographs of herself naked, before she jumped out a window at age 22 in 1981. Since then, museums, galleries, critics, and audiences have admired her work with a fervor that is reserved, perversely, for those dramatically outlived by their art. But The Woodmans, Willis's film, is not really about Woodman's suicide. It shoos away any vulture-ism and lets you look freely and freshly. The movie is about what it says it's about: the Woodmans, an American family of four that is typical in that its members are doing their best to assert themselves without hurting each other. The twist is that all of them are devoted full-time artists.
In Francesca's most famous photograph, she's nude and standing behind peeling pieces of wallpaper on a wall. Her black-and-white medium-format pictures and experimental videos are not desperate cries for help at all; they're determined attempts at some impossible communion. She was the victim of no particular trauma. She was naturally fragile—writings from her journals demonstrate a surprisingly clear-eyed suffering—and that fragility lent itself to marvelous art as well as to the decision to jump out that window, as one of her college friends matter-of-factly describes.
But the sheer doggedness of her family members gives the lie to the myth of the romantic suicidal genius—Betty Woodman, Francesca's mother, holds almost the cult status her daughter does, and recently her exuberant ceramics earned her what few living artists can boast: a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. George Woodman was closest to his daughter, and before her death, he was an abstract painter. Now, eerily but on some level understandably, he makes photographs not unlike Francesca's, stagings of nude young women in emptied domestic interiors. In the art world, neither he nor Charles, Francesca's brother, who teaches electronic art at the University of Cincinnati, are as big as their female counterparts.
The remaining Woodmans acknowledge the double-sidedness of managing Francesca's increasingly prestigious estate (renewed interest has come from such quarters as the Tate Modern in London, New York's Guggenheim, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). It is a way to maintain a connection to their daughter, but it triggers dark impulses: jealousy, competition among family members, anger. What makes The Woodmans exceptional is the analytical, drama- free honesty on camera: Here's an aging, heartbroken father admitting to envying and competing with his own dead daughter, while trying still to appreciate the simple beauties of being alive. While Francesca writes, finally, that her desire to die is "nothing to do with... self-doubt or because my heart is gone. And not to teach people a lesson. Simply the other side," her father's words ring in simple contrast, "To stay alive is a pretty good thing to do."