Art and "Artemisia": A Conversation with Agnes Merlet
by Aaron Krach
Not many people can get Harvey Weinstein to fly across the Atlantic,
arrive in Paris at 8 a.m. to watch an unfinished movie without
subtitles. But that is exactly what happened when Mr. Weinstein heard
advanced buzz about Agnes Merlet’s second feature, “Artemisia.” Her
first film, “The Son of The Shark” was featured at Sundance in 1994 and
enjoyed a limited release from Seventh Arts. With Miramax behind
“Artemisia,” Merlet is on the brink of a breakthrough.
Artemisia was born in 1593, her father was a successful Italian Baroque
painter. She wanted to be a painter like her father, but because she was
a woman she was not allowed to study a form which used male models.
Artemisia, with the help of her father, convinced another painter,
Agostino Tassi, to take her under his wing and teach the ways of
painting. She learned a lot more than painting from Tassi, causing a
controversy that has affected Artemisia’s reputation to this day.
Merlet creates a nuanced character study of an artist confronting the
boundaries of her gender. It is testament to her talent as a director
that the viewer easily forgets the events on screen took place so long
ago. The film opens today in NYC and LA, and then wider May 15.
indieWIRE: Was it hard to get people interested in making a movie about
a female painter that has been dead for more that 400 years?
Agnes Merlet: In the beginning it was. I would tell people that I was
going to make a movie about painting and about Artemisia, but they
thought it was quite strange. They said painting isn’t interesting. I
had to explain to them step by step. I wrote a treatment and my producer
was interested. I rewrote it and then TV got interested. I rewrote it
again and more people got interested. It was so different than my first
movie, which was about two brothers living without parents.
iW: When did Miramax get involved with the project?
Merlet: They got involved before the movie was finished. The president
of Miramax Zoe saw the movie and told Harvey that it was good and that
it would be going very soon. Other companies, like Sony were looking at
it. So he arrived at 8 in the morning and he watched it without
subtitles. There was a guy sitting next to him translating every word.
Harvey sat there drinking tons of Diet Coke and afterwards he said,
“It’s OK. I like it.”
iW: “Artemisia” is an elaborate costume-drama for a low budget film. How
did you arrange the financing?
Merlet: It was a co-production between Italy, France and Germany. The
budget was about 7 million dollars. The shoot was 12 weeks. We shot in
Italy and around Rome. The beach was in Tuscany.
iW: What was the reaction to “Artemisia” in France?
Merlet: The reaction in France was quite so-so with the audience. Maybe
we opened at a bad period. There were a lot of American movies opening
the same weekend. So who knows?
iW: There is a lot of male nudity in your film. Artemisia’s story is
about getting to draw male nudity, her experience finding someone to
pose for her. Did you identify with Artemisia while you were filming the
Merlet: Yes I did. Once I wanted to make a movie where only men are
naked and not the women. But I did not have as much fun in the casting
as some did.
iW: As a director, it doesn’t appear that you made a decision about
who’s fault it is when things go wrong. Did you side with Artemisia or
with Tassi, the man she falls in love with but is also ruined by?
Merlet: I wanted to love each of the three characters, Artemisia, Tassi
and her father, Orazio. I decided that because it could help us
understand them. They are not good or bad. Eventually it is a mess
because everybody loses something.
iW: You went to art school instead of film school. Has that helped you
as a director?
Merlet: I went to school to study drawing and painting. But after one
year I started to make films. I was interested in experimental movies;
Chantal Ackerman, Godard of course, Michael Snow, Bunuel. I first had
the idea of making a painting about Artemisia in art school. I thought
it was too expensive to make a feature about her. Until there was a big
exhibition of her work in Italy and I knew that if I wanted to make a
movie about her, now was the right time. Most young french directors
are using psychology and dialogue. But my cinema is more about the
iW: What are you working on next?
Merlet: I’m just writing. I am always writing. I wrote three or four
versions of Artemisia. If I could find someone to write something I
liked I would do it. Or if I found a book that I liked. But it is better
to write your own script. Because you have to be alone with yourself and
know what you want to do.