The Portrait of a Lady: Everyone Loves Isabel

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Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996), and the 1881 novel by Henry James on which Campion loosely based her film are about female sexuality. “Oh, what isn’t?” you say. Well, sure, but perspective makes all the difference. Campion stands as a fascinating benchmark of the progress made by feminism when we juxtapose her approach to heroine Isabel Archer with James’s, though you wouldn’t know it if you went by what the critics said about the film when it first came out. Across the board, male and female, critics focused primarily on their admiration of the performances and the gorgeous visuals and/or agonized about Campion getting James all wrong.  
But she didn’t. Rather, she courageously revised the Master’s work in a different, female voice. Time for a reconsideration of this 23 year old film? Yeah.
On a plot level, Campion is in step with the James original in giving us Isabel (Nicole Kidman) as an American girl bereft of mother, father, and visible means of support who is taken up by the rich Touchett branch of her family, expatriates in England. As in the novel, Isabel brings to Gardencourt, the large Touchett estate, a breath of fresh air; most of all to her chronically ill cousin Ralph (Martin Donovan) who has, before the film begins, fallen hopelessly in love with her, but also to Aunt Touchett (Shelley Winters) and Uncle Touchett (John Gielgud), although neither of them know what to make of her headstrong Yankee ways. By contrast, headstrong is what Ralph loves, actively hoping Isabel will follow through on her plan to break all barriers that constrain the women of his era and fly high, wide, and handsome. Like James, Campion also zeros in on the place of marriage in Isabel’s plans to exercise personal freedom. But, if you stick around, you’ll see that she represents Isabel’s suitors and lovers quite differently than James does. And if both James and Campion characterize Isabel as an object of desire, while James’ heroine is thereby doomed, Campion’s girl is not. The change in direction is not a sop to Hollywood melioristic conventions, but rather a penetrating look at the historical change in possibilities for women.


James’s Isabel is a pessimistic figure who first appears as a shining paragon of American optimism and independence, and then spirals into an irreversible fall. She becomes another of James’s warnings that American individualism is dead wrong. The regressive ways of the the past cannot be overcome. Not so for Campion, an Australian who plays down James’s American themes and believes in the future. Campion is interested in Isabel as a gateway modern woman, who is not a morning glory, but is rather traveling in the opposite direction, from a state of conflicted confusion toward something much more like confidence. Campion’s is a fascinating depiction of an evolution of gender relations that does not take place in a straight line.

When we first meet Campion’s Isabel, she is in a strange place. Although there is no pressure on her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, offers of marriage, of which she receives three, make her extremely anxious. The first proposal is made by young, dapper Lord Warburton (Richard E. Grant), which she refuses in the name of adventure, but with the air of a trapped animal. Like cousin Ralph, Warburton was already under Isabel’s spell before the film begins, and he is in the process of proposing marriage when we first see our heroine. To be exact, she has fled from him and he is following, uncomprehendingly catering to her unarticulated but obvious hesitations. He wonders if she fears that his ancestral manor, Lockley, might be damp. Maybe she doesn’t like moats? But. But. But. But. He has “plenty of houses.” She can set up as Lady Warburton in any one of them. She looks at him flailing about as if she were the one clinging to the edge of a precipice by her nails. Why? Campion is not yet ready to tell us. She wants only at this point to call our attention to Isabel’s unwarranted apprehension about his adoration. And she follows the scene with a comic postscript. When Isabel makes her final run from Warburton, one of the Touchett dogs runs with her. “Back,” she orders brusquely. Does she fear the pooch might be damp?

Campion’s Portrait exists to render visible the invisible sources of Isabel’s angst. She starts by encouraging us to look at our heroine from a large historical perspective by preceding the Warburton proposal set in 1872, with a main title set in 1996, over which we hear a sprinkling of young, unidentified, relaxed girls talking about the excitement of kissing, voices only. When they are made visible, we see them in all their 20th century radiance, easy with each other, self-assured about their independence, and completely unthreatened by the prospect of sexual intimacy. We never again cut to contemporary life. The girls serve, innovatively, as Campion’s springboard for her audience from the present into the past, a brief flash forward that is meant to help us understand Isabel’s story as marking a trajectory from her agitation toward the girls’ relaxed exuberance. What specific trajectory? We will get to that later.

Nicole Kidman

So, if you are keeping score, in the first inning, Ralph, Lord Warburton, and the Touchett dog, are all enthralled by Isabel. Moving along to the second inning, Caspar Goodwood (Viggo Mortensen), arrives from America, similarly smitten. We can’t tell exactly from their conversation when fresh off the boat he seeks her out whether he once proposed marriage to her, but clearly in the past he has let her know he wants to be the main man in her life, and that hasn’t changed. However, poor Goodwood hardly has shoe leather on English soil when Isabel indignantly makes it clear that if he were the last man in the universe….well, you know, and she literally shows him an open door. She is very much the tense young woman we saw with Warburton. But before Goodwood takes his reluctant leave, he, unlike the young lord, who maintained a very respectful distance, caresses Isabel’s face, gently. And then, he’s gone. And then, WOW!

As soon as she is alone, Isabel dwells on Goodwood’s brief touch with sexual longing so intense that she breaks into a heated–verging on pornographic–fantasy. In her fantasy, Isabel is ecstatically caught up in erotic feelings about Goodwood. In her imagination, she lies on her bed rapturously as he kisses her face, neck, and breasts, and–. Yes, she harbors a great inner desire for the very man to whom she just gave the old heave-ho. But wait. Warburton is there too, kissing her legs, and moving generally in the direction of cunilingus. Oh, my stars! And there’s Ralph Touchett. He’s lying on the bed with the three of them, observing.

Did you notice? There’s a lot going on but our Isabel is playing a passive role. That’s important. The contradiction between her belligerent assertiveness in external matters and the sensual yielding she imagines in her secret inner life is the story. Campion was ahead of the curve in seeking insight into the ways in which women’s understanding of ourselves as sexual beings impacts our search for personhood. And in Isabel’s case, disaster is the teacher.

John Malkovich and Nicole Kidman

After she inherits a fortune from Uncle Touchett, and plans to make her way around the world as a free woman, the game is afoot in earnest, when the disaster, that is to say a new man, comes into her life, a man who has cornered the market on reducing women to every kind of passivity, starting with their sexuality. Enter Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), a cold, snobbish, sadistic, predatory American expatriate whom she meets in Florence. He wants to marry her too. And this time she says yes. Too many of us in 1996 only saw the beautiful surfaces of Campion’s film, which could be read as a simple melodrama in which the heroine has to be rescued from a villain. But on second thought Campion’s film is more of a psychological thriller and in looking again we gain much if, before we talk about rescue, we dwell on the filmmaker’s subtle, original, and difficult evocation of the psychology of Isabel’s choice.

Because of the constraints of his time, James had to resort to very cryptic, oblique clues about Isabel’s sexuality in connection with her unfathomable acceptance of the obnoxious Osmond. Campion hangs it all out there in visualized fantasies speaking the language of the subconscious. Isabel’s post-Goodwood fantasy tells us of her uncomprehending wish to be taken and looked at, a fantasy at war with her desire to be her own woman. A post-Osmond fantasy soon follows that depicts him literally as the man of her dreams and not in a good way. He may be a small, unattractive bastard who has none of the obvious charms of any of Isabel’s other suitors, including the Touchett dog, but he makes flesh Isabel’s dreams of being manhandled and objectified. Regressive? Very. That’s the point.

John Malkovich as Osmond

The scene in which Osmond declares love for Isabel, just before she is scheduled to embark on a trip around the world, is a Krafft-Ebing delirium of sado-masochism in which she steps out of the passivity of her dreams and into a passivity in the the external world as a helpless object of Osmond’s machinations. Initially, she puts up her usual defenses against him, but as Osmond makes her unexamined desire to be dominated a reality she is like a deer in the headlights. However, please don’t jump to the conclusion that Campion is insinuating that women “are looking for it.” Rather, she is peering into the dynamic of change through the clash between Isabel’s longing for the new, and her vulnerability to the call of the old. When Osmond shows up, Isabel is overwhelmed by the atavistic call of outmoded, dying but not yet dead patriarchal repression that haunts her fantasies. The film is about how she finally awakens from this nightmare of historically inculcated sexism. Is Campion on target in acknowledging that as women move toward personhood there can be a rough passage from the established dominance-submission gender mode toward the relaxed confidence abut mutuality that we saw in the girls of the future in the main title? Well, at the very least, she provides an intriguingly non-linear model of change, and it strikes a chord with me.

Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich

In James’s morose—overly pessimistic?–Portrait, Isabel is destroyed by atavistic sexuality, a narrative that resonates far less for me than Campion’s Portrait, in which Isabel ultimately realizes her potential, but is forced to first suffer a temporary defeat. I am fascinated by how Campion articulates the seduction scene, as a rush of subconscious regression in which Osmond dizzyingly insinuates himself below Isabel’s conscious defenses, murmuring intimately into her ear, though in fact a stranger to her, now inexplicably darting at her, now suddenly breaking her equilibrium by pulling away, climaxing his performance by kissing her while holding her captive in his grip.

Isabel travels to exotic lands after this interlude, but cannot escape an erotic obsession with Osmond. Always with her are fantasies of his hands on her passive, naked body and memories of his whispered words, which increasingly filter out anything external in her life as a tourist, no matter how thrilling her destination. His whispered “I am absolutely in love with you” gradually morphs into her voice speaking those words, as if she has taken a hypnotic suggestion. At the climax of this frenzy, her own subjectivity fully eclipsed by his, she loses consciousness and faints. One headstrong Yankee girl bites the dust—or seems to. The dreamlike way Campion presents Osmond’s words swallowing Isabel’s personhood makes it impossible to determine whether she actually faints in her external life or whether the swoon is a phantasmic image of the shutting down of her individual awareness inside her. Regardless, her captivity is now her central reality, inner and outer. Isabel’s inner collapse is the prelude to her marriage to Osmond and years of demeaning domestic obligations and sadistic intimidation threatening real physical harm.


On the misery of the marriage Campion and James agree, but Campion gives a subtle and insightful modern twist to Isabel’s surrender of her agency to Osmond’s by interweaving it with the concomitant contamination of Isabel’s relationships with other women by her seducer. Indeed, Campion suggests that an enormous part of Osmond’s power is the way he uses women to destroy each other and serve him, a pathology that has been documented an an integral part of abusive relationships. Osmond’s first attack occurs while Isabel is still reeling in the big seduction scene, when he requests that, before Isabel goes off on her travels, she look in on his daughter Pansy (Valentina Cervi) at the convent in which she is being boarded. It is a peculiar solicitation for a comparative stranger to make and seems extremely odd, coming as it does on the heels of his sado-masochistic mating dance. But innocent and peripheral as the request may first seem, the relationship between Pansy and Isabel that Osmond begets turns out to be a crucial aspect of both Isabel’s bondage and her ultimate rebirth.

Valentina Cervi as Pansy

Her first glimpse of adorable Pansy is as a preternaturally dutiful daughter. Isabel is struck by her old-fashioned charm, but somewhat startled when Pansy is unable, even in Osmond’s absence, to cross a particular line in the convent garden, because “papa” has forbidden her to. Perhaps a dimly heard alarm bell goes off, but it is not until her marriage to Osmond, that Pansy’s obedience becomes clearly intertwined with the sexual sado-masochism of the marriage to form an entrapping web for both women. As Osmond increasingly seeks controls over Isabel and Pansy, the daughter is reduced to a commodity by means of which he is set upon effecting a marriage to Lord Warburton that will elevate his status, and his wife is reduced to humiliatingly exploiting Lord Warburton’s love for her to manipulate him into marrying Pansy, despite the girl’s love for a young man her own age.

Barbara Hershey and John Malkovich

Isabel is smothered by Osmond as part of a much larger history of similar use of other women. Osmond’s harem includes Serena Merle (Barbara Hershey), an American woman who was Isabel’s predecessor and who has been painfully subjugated to his whims, and Osmond’s sister, Countess Gemini (Shelley Duvall), a ridiculous ditz who has previously made herself complicit with Osmond by her silence. James’s Isabel becomes remains forever enmeshed in this terrible seraglio. However, as Campion tells it, a kind of sisterhood among these victimized women emerges in time.

Shelley Duval as Countess Gemini

Isabel is almost a goner after years of Osmond, and almost obeys him when he forbids her to leave Florence to go to the bedside of her dying cousin Ralph in England. However, at this point, a chain reaction begins that leads Merle, convulsed by her own suffering, to reveal some home truths to Isabel about how Osmond married her for her money. Until Merle speaks, Isabel doesn’t even know that it was Ralph who convinced his father to leave a fortune to Isabel, a touching revelation, but her self-respect almost shatters when Madame Merle further informs her of how she slavishly used that turn of events to steer Osmond toward marriage with what he considered a young meal ticket, much as Isabel has been induced to steer Warburton. The Countess Gemini, eccentrically silly though she usually is, sees that partial truth is not enough and restores the fight in Isabel when she unmasks the full magnitude of Merle’s role in Osmond’s life. She reveals that Merle, Osmond’s lover for seven or eight years before his marriage to his newest victim, is Pansy’s mother, not Osmond’s childless first wife, as Isabel believed. The force of what both Merle and Gemini disclose has a tonic effect. The old attractions of passivity evaporate and an active consciousness returns to Isobel. It is of note that Campion does not give us internal images of the breaking of Osmond’s spell as she did when the spell was cast. Perhaps she should have. But in any case, once the women have spoken, Isabel moves forward.


Campion’s Isabel does not immediately become the free woman she wants to be, but she is not back at square one either. She is on her way to an evolved state of awareness. In the wake of the new information, she becomes unstoppable in her determination to leave Florence against Osmond’s wishes in order to see Ralph before he dies and to free Lord Warburton. She also seeks to undo the damage she has done to Pansy as Osmond’s unwilling co-conspirator. She carries out the first two resolves, but alas not her resolve about Pansy, whose abject capitulation to her father serves to highlight why Isabel escapes and she does not. Pansy surprises “papa” when she resists marriage to Warburton prompting Osmond to sent her to a convent to “give her time to think.” Her situation is the opposite of Isabel’s. Isolated among desexualized, complicit women, Pansy is devoid of supportive sisterhood and surrounded by women lacking any active sexual agency. From the point of view of Campion’s film, this is why time in the convent leads Pansy to conclude that she must never go against papa’s wishes. Not even Isabel’s direct invitation to Pansy to escape with her to England and possibly have the man she loves can move Osmond’s enthralled daughter. A clean cinematic cut between the fruitless conversation between Pansy and Isabel and Isabel’s return to Gardencourt speaks volumes about what Isabel has done to her ties to Florence.

Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett

However, Campion is not so trivial as to go for a simple happy ending. She provides, rather, ambiguity, ambivalence, and inconclusiveness, but in a good way, I would contend. The changes Isabel goes through give us much to think about. Luckily, she arrives in England in time to see Ralph before he dies and to show him the evolved Isabel. The new Isabel gets into his bed since he is too feeble to get out of it, freely talks with him of her mistakes, and exchanges tears with him over the way his efforts to give her the money for her dreams of freedom backfired. She showers him with kisses, with an abandon that borders on the necrophiliac. At first, the scene is shocking and the sexual undertones of her affectionate ministrations to Ralph leaves us in doubt about who she is becoming. However, if there is something ambiguously perverse in Isabel’s release on Ralph’s deathbed, there is also something beautiful in the free flow of feminine energy in which she actively enfolds him in his last moments. Moreover, this is only the prelude to Isabel’s big change.

Isabel’s drive toward emancipation is reserved for the scene after Ralph’s funeral when she is confronted by Goodwood as a kind of book end to the opening scene with Warburton. At first, Isabel seems to be her old self when Goodwood asks her if now, at last, the two of them can give each other some happiness. But her stiff defiance melts as his fingers gently touch her face and she vacillates between active desire and flight. Under the pressure of this moment she initiates a kiss with him, passive object no more, and they seem to be headed for a beautiful friendship, when, giving the audience whiplash, she abruptly breaks from him and runs toward the Gardencourt manor house. Like the Isabel we saw run from Warburton, she is frantic for escape, and her hand makes agitated contact with the sought for doorknob. But wait! What? She is suddenly ambivalent, and neither turns the knob nor enters what had seemed like a refuge. Instead, she stops, still and reflective, and turns away from the door. It is a long, long moment, her face opening to the dawn of a new idea.

In James’s novel, Isabel’s unimpeded flight from a kiss Goodwood initiates propels her toward a return to Florence and to irretrievable imprisonment with Pansy, Merle, Gemini, and Osmond; Campion’s Isabel leaves that web of darkness body and soul definitively when she refrains from turning the knob and thinks. We have been trained by conventional movies to imagine, when Isabel stops abruptly, that she is looking back toward Goodwood and to guess whether she will or won’t hook up with him, but Campion is asking us to break that kind of hackneyed reflex and embrace an inconclusiveness filled with potential. Goodwood isn’t visible in these last moments, and we don’t really know that she is looking toward where she left him. We only know that she is looking away from a place of retreat, suggesting that we ought to focus on Isabel’s new relationship to herself. To retreat is to remain the woman who fell into Osmond’s trap. To stop running and think is to be a new woman, a person with her own passions, a moment having little or nothing to do with any specific man, Osmond or Goodwood. The upshot of everything she has endured is that she is on the verge of free choice about her sexuality, facing now in the direction of the girls of the future, whatever that may portend.

Jane Campion and Nicole Kidman

We have heard much questioning about if and in what ways women directors add something new to filmmaking. The Portrait of a Lady seems to me to be exhibit A for contending that some do. However, in revising Henry James’s novel as no man would or could, Campion demonstrates more than the changes that have taken place since 1881; she demonstrates the changes that have not taken place. In thoroughly missing the organic relationship of Isabel’s fantasy life to the plot, earlier critics just assumed Campion was flamboyantly showing off her directorial chops, or sensationalizing James. We failed to see that she was giving the audience a piercing, feminist insight into what happens, at least in some cases, on the road to gender equality. But hang in there, Isabel. Many of us are not running anymore.

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