Artist Francesca Woodman committed suicide in 1981 at age 22, leaving behind a collection of photographs, videos, and books that have since been exhibited around the world. Scott Willis’ documentary The Woodmans isn’t just about Francesca and her alternately beautiful and shocking black-and-white nude self-portraits. It’s also about the guardians of her legacy: her parents George and Betty, artists who share mixed feelings of guilt and pride over what became of their daughter.
George and Betty Woodman would be an exceptional couple even if they hadn’t spawned Francesca. Long before it was fashionable, the Woodmans lived as proud iconoclasts, splitting time between a villa in Italy and the Colorado home that they’d turned into an art installation. They loved their children, but were ambivalent about their roles as parents, and made sure their kids knew that art came first. Francesca internalized that lesson, and blazed through her classes at the Rhode Island School Of Design before moving to New York, intending to make a living as a fashion photographer while pursuing her art. But she didn’t break through as quickly as she expected, and when she killed herself, her friends and family—and eventually her fans—were left to pick through her work for clues to why she gave up on life.
In that spirit, Willis works to turn The Woodmans into an existential mystery, through a soundtrack full of moody vibes, interviews shot in tight close-ups, and the floating words from Francesca’s diaries that Willis inserts as a kind of answer from beyond the grave. Intentionally or unintentionally, there’s a degree of accusation to The Woodmans that’s discomfiting, almost as if Willis is indicting Francesca’s parents for being so self-involved—even though they’re just answering his questions as honestly as they can. But George and Betty survive Willis’ grilling with their dignity intact, as Betty steers the conversation away from the meaning of Francesca’s photos and toward their innate quality, while George frankly asserts that one of the reasons he loved his daughter was that she was the kind of passionate person who would try something as drastic as suicide. Some might find their attitude perplexing, or even monstrous. To the Woodmans, that’s just the way it goes when you dedicate your life to your art.