Miss Spinney: For those were the years when there was a hunger in you for more than food. There was a suffering in you that was worse than anything a winter, or poverty, could do. It was a winter of your mind when the life of your genius seemed frozen and motionless -- and how did you know if spring would ever come again to set it free? ~ from Portrait of Jennie (1948)In the film Portrait of Jennie mystery and fantasy overlap even as they do in the wonderful novel by Robert Nathan. I read Nathan's book one particularly bleak December while at university and found it entrancing. The movie did not do well in the box office when it debuted but it has since become a classic. Dimitri Tiomkin wove together themes of Claude Debussy, creating a score which gives a magical quality to what might otherwise be a rather eerie tale.
Joseph Cotten plays the starving artist, Eben Adams, who finds himself trapped in the winter of the soul known as discouragement. He is alone in the big city, unable to find anyone who believes in his work and unable to believe in it himself. At the park one day he meets an ethereal young girl whose quaint manner touches his heart. With each successive meeting with Jennie, as the girl is called, his art becomes more inspired; it begins to speak to others.
According to Slant Magazine:
Portrait of Jennie is a haunting evocation of one man's pained artistic process, and the genius of the film is how Dieterle [the director] delicately equates the creative impulse to an ever-evolving spiritual crisis.....Eben's relationship to Jennie becomes an addiction of sorts and, therefore, an obstacle he must conquer. This is all part of Dieterle's god-like master plan: Eben is repeatedly tested until he can create without the temptation that Jenny comes to represent.Jennie, of course, is portrayed by Jennifer Jones, who easily makes the transformation from a girl into the young woman whom Eben paints, even as he is falling in love. The portrait of Jennie marks the beginning of his fame and success. Eben, however, is only concerned with Jennie, who keeps disappearing from his life. His search for her brings him to the convent school where she was educated, and where the nuns remember her fondly. As Sister Mary of Mercy (Lillian Gish) listens to his story the mystery deepens, since the Jennie who was Sister's pupil has been dead for many years. Eben must face the fact that the woman who has become his muse of inspiration is someone who is lost to him in this world. Sister Mary's words to him sum up the heart of the drama:
Don't doubt the ways of providence, Mr. Adams. What vision has been vouchsafed you, I can't say. But be sure it is for a reason beyond ours to know. You must have faith that there is a greater design -- a greater plan to the universe than we are able to comprehend.Share