William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie appears to be a muse story masquerading as a ghost story. But look a little closer and it becomes clear that it subverts the typical muse narrative, and is by no means a conventional ghost story. Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten), our protagonist, is an artist experiencing a “winter of the mind” during a Manhattan winter. Unable to sell his work, he’s in search of inspiration, which he finds in the form of Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones), a mysterious little girl he meets in Central Park. Although the time frame covered by the film is less than a year, every time Eben meets Jennie she’s years older. When she has nearly reached womanhood, Eben begins to paint her portrait, and the next time they meet, when he completes it, they begin to plan their future together. Soon afterwards, Eben learns that Jennie died many years earlier. Given this plot summary, why should I contend that Eben Adams’ blossoming as an artist is not the film’s subject? Although shouldn’t it give us pause that his inspiration takes the form of a dead woman? Isn’t that just a bit creepy?
I must confess that I watched Portrait of Jennie many times, and fell in love with it, without thinking about what any of it meant. My first, second, and third impressions of the film were of its lush visual and aural landscape, its unique, charmed atmosphere. It’s one of the few films of which it can be truly be said that it gives a sense of magic, and it has nothing to do with special effects (unless Jennifer Jones’ portrayal of a child when she was aged nearly 30 can be considered a special effect). Not merely relying on a fey quality that few actresses can match, Jones hurls herself into the role of a child with a Method actor’s rawness and sincerity. There is no distance between herself and Jennie, no knowingness in her portrayal, seemingly no awareness of an audience, other than the audience of Eben/Cotten. The ever-subdued Cotten, who played Jones’ love interest in several films (including Portrait of Jennie‘s companion in lush romanticism, Dieterle’s Love Letters), is content to let her be the focus of their scenes together, mainly offering her emotional support and serving as a ballast as she whips through moods. Perhaps the most convincing aspect of Jones’ portrayal of a child and young adult is the way her moods and impulses follow hard upon each other as her words tumble out so fast that they almost stumble over each other. “I’m hurrying,” she tells Eben more than once when he comments on her speeding toward womanhood. Hungry for experience, Jennie exists in an eternal present in which she feels each thing completely, even as she rushes eagerly from one moment to the next.
Like Jennie herself, Portrait of Jennie is also made up of incongruities and rapid mood changes. Stylistically, it’s a medley, sometimes a melee, in part a legacy of its troubled production history. Along with Jones’ performance, the film’s magical atmosphere can largely be attributed to the visual landscape created by Dieterle and cinematographer Joseph H. August, and the aural landscape created by Dimitri Tiomkin using themes by Debussy, with significant help from Bernard Herrmann, who composed the eerie song that Jennie sings to Eben at their first meeting. The film is aggressively non-naturalistic, using a combination of music and visuals to overwhelm and disorient whenever Eben and Jennie are together. Even when we are with Eben while he is away from Jennie, we are in an enchanted Manhattan of cozy bohemian enclaves, ethnic diversity, eccentric spinster art dealers, and gently belligerent Irish pub owners.
To all of this is added the kitschy touches of producer and pudding-over-egger extraordinaire David O. Selznick. His most spectacular (literally) contribution is the widescreen extravaganza of the color-tinted storm sequence in which Eben tries to pull Jennie through time. But the Selznick touch is also present in the proto-Serling, purple prose voice-over prologue, narrated in treacly, preachery tones while cosmic visions and highbrow quotations pass before our wondering eyes. The viewer who has agreed to swallow this will then be thrown for a loop all over again by Jennie’s haunting song about the mystery of human origins and destiny, an eruption of Modernism made all the more jarring by her offhand introduction of it and the giddy resumption of Debussy that follows. An aesthetic of excess is everywhere present in Portrait of Jennie, but it takes many different, incongruous forms.
Eben’s Portrait of Jennie (i.e., the portrait of Jennifer Jones, Selznick’s soon-to-be wife, which he treasured) is of a piece with the kitschy prologue. Eben portrays Jennie in the white Sunday dress she wears at the convent where she goes to college, and the resulting painting is disappointing because this quasi-Victorian vision of feminine purity is itself in terrible taste. Luckily the film’s own surrealist/Modernist/motley aesthetic repudiates the painting’s placid sentimentality. And yet the overt narrative of the film would have us believe that Eben has become a real artist because of this vision of “timeless” and “eternal” femininity, to use the words of his art dealer friend, Matthews. Obviously, this can’t be what Portrait of Jennie is really about— and fortunately, another story can be teased out of it, one in which Jennie is the protagonist. But to understand this other story, I first need to introduce the concept of the “portrait movie.”
The term “portrait movie” recognizes that several film noirs and Gothic woman’s pictures of the ‘40s feature portraits of beautiful women who are either dead or wrongly assumed to be dead or will soon become dead. Further, in Otto Preminger’s Laura, the hero falls in love with the portrait of a woman whom he believes to be dead. And in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a meta-portrait movie, the hero falls in love with a woman who is obsessed with a dead woman whose portrait she tries to copy, and himself becomes obsessed with her after her apparent death. Feminist film critics have drawn connections between the stasis of portraits and the stasis of corpses, and between the idealization of dead women and the fear of living women that these tropes may represent. The iconic homecoming queen photo of Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is an updating of the portrait, although in that work even Laura’s corpse, famously “wrapped in plastic,” becomes a work of art.
The difference between Jennie and these heroines is that Jennie, far from being an image or story with which the hero falls in love, travels through time to find Eben so that she can become a portrait. We are able to piece together, from Eben’s investigation into her past and Jennie’s statements, that Jennie feared she would never find someone to love and be loved by in return, and that she believes that there is only one person for every person in all of time. Since she died without meeting that person, she has searched through time for him. But she is motivated as much by the desire to be loved as by the desire to find someone to love. In this she resembles Milly Theale, the fatally ill young heroine of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, an important precursor to the portrait film. The question of whether Milly will be loved before, or for that matter after, she dies is crucial to James’ story because it will determine not only how profoundly Milly will have lived in her short time, but how profoundly she will be remembered. Jennie takes things a step further than Milly: She wants to be loved not only by a man, but by an artist, so that she will be remembered by generations. Obscure and lonely when she died, Jennie is famous and beloved as a portrait. She and Eben aren’t able to defy time in order to physically be together as man and wife, but as a portrait, she triumphs over time.
Nevertheless, there’s a paradox in Jennie’s desire to become a work of art. Is it a coincidence that the completion of the portrait is contemporaneous with both Jennie’s achievement of womanhood and the replaying of her death? Why should Eben first meet Jennie when she is a child, a rather awkward beginning for a great romance? The same idea occurs in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, in which the title character first meets the time traveler, her “future” husband, when she is 6 and he is an adult. However, in Portrait of Jennie, Jennie is the time traveler: she has gone searching for Eben, and has him picked out as husband before he’s ever met her. She announces at their first meeting that she wants him to wait for her to grow up so they can always be together; tells him at their second meeting that she’s hurrying in order to realize her wish; comments on the occasion of the portrait’s commencement that her friend wants to know when he’s going to marry her; and once she appears to him as an adult, it’s already a given that they’re in love.
The ontological status of Jennie remains a mystery no matter how many times one watches the movie. She knows and doesn’t know that everything about her has changed every time she sees Eben, and that this is, at least to some extent, intentional on her part. Yet when she’s not with Eben, she seems to be living a full life, one into which she’s woven him. She tells him more than once about discussing him with a friend. Is this a fantasy? But in that case, who or what is fantasizing, and how? Where does she go when she’s not with him? Are these false memories that leap into her mind during her appearances to him? Or is she re-experiencing her life in an alternate reality, or a spirit world, where time moves differently than it does for us? Is Eben a sort of ghost for her in that world; a man whom she’s loved from childhood and knows she’s going to marry, but whom she only sees briefly, at far-flung intervals? And yet she always seems to expect him, and when she tells him during their last meeting before the storm that they “have until the morning, and I think a little more,” she seems to know that there are rules she has to follow.
Jennie does not seem much like the portrait of a lady when we first meet her. She’s a boisterous child, boasting about her fights with her friends, and an active child, skating so vigorously during their second meeting in the park that she makes Eben fall on the ice, to her great amusement. She talks like a blur, ideas and stories tumbling out, jumbled together. And although her appeal to Eben seems to be that she’s associated with a romanticized, albeit recent, past, Dieterle and August don’t attempt to hide the modernity of Manhattan. On the contrary, they create an utterly distinctive visual fantasy language by placing the young Jennie, in her Edwardian child’s garb, in a setting of skyscrapers and park foliage, the urban and pastoral each contributing their elements of enchantment. The fact that this world is frozen also contributes to its enchantment, somehow without any element of morbidity: it’s as though it’s preserved, taken out of time. Winter is the moment when nature’s process is stilled. The white sun, blazing between the tall buildings of downtown Manhattan in a blank winter sky, is as emphasized as the snow and the blankness of the bare, black branches, but it doesn’t seem to contribute warmth, only a severe, spiritual dimension, a blinding purity.
Jennie is part of this larger order, at once natural and otherworldly, when Eben first encounters her, but as she matures, she becomes less uncanny, appearing in enclosed, private social spaces—or rather one particular space, Eben’s studio. Her behavior, too, alters, becoming more suited to this small, cramped space, and eventually to the even more cramped space of a portrait canvas. When he begins her portrait, she already looks like a young lady in her Sunday dress, but she’s still talkative and fidgety enough that Eben has to tell her, laughingly, to be still. How else will he paint her portrait? During the next sitting, at the end of which he calls her over to view the finished portrait, he doesn’t even have to tell her; she is already calm and composed, that is, “womanly.” As she approaches womanhood and death, she “naturally” grows more still, more portrait-like.
For this final sitting August and Dieterle contrive an effect that emphasizes the identity of portraithood and death, one that grows out of the visual language they’ve invented for the film. August has already, more than once, shown us Manhattan through a filter that makes it look canvas-like, and he and Dieterle designed a language of light and shadow to express what Jennie represents throughout the film. Often, she comes rushing toward Eben (and the viewer) from a light source, accompanied by a surge of Debussy. Their first meeting is quite casual: she’s playing in the snow in the background when he comes across her, like any ordinary child, without striking visuals to signify her otherworldliness. By their second meeting, he’s started to await her appearances, and she glides toward him across the rink from the light source of the sun, but the strong backlighting and dazzling effects of light obscure her face and form. When she appears in his studio for the first time her face is again initially obscured; spotting her hands and arms, Eben searches for her face to confirm her identity, but when he first sees it, it’s in deep shadow. And when he encounters her for the final time before the storm, in the park at night, the effect of their second meeting is repeated: she runs toward him from a lamp, the backlighting initially rendering her face and form a blank.
The most obvious purpose served by this repeated effect, which occurs whenever Jennie has significantly aged since the last time she appeared, is that it keeps Eben, and the viewer, in suspense about what Jennie will look like this time. Never has the maturing of a young woman been presented as such a source of excitement, like a continually unfolding miracle. At the same time, it is also a visual reminder that Jennie is “the ideal;” she’s all women through all times, as Matthews intimates, and therefore it takes a moment for her features to resolve into those of an individual personality. This Late Romantic idea of the “woman who is all women,” like Walter Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa (another portrait), is usually associated with a much more sinister idea of femaleness than the one we’re presented with in Portrait of Jennie. Nevertheless, the film does inherit the mood of the Conclusion of Pater’s The Renaissance, with its rhetoric of the brevity of life, the fleetingness of experience, and the consequent need to meet the world with as much intensity of feeling as possible. Even his imagery anticipates Portrait of Jennie‘s curious enchanted world of light and shadow, sun and snow: “Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.”
The third purpose served by the effect is to make Eben, and the viewer, briefly anxious for Jennie: She’s such a lovable, warm, lively presence, that to see her face obscured like that for a moment is frightening. It’s as if she’s suffered a brief eclipse, a momentary death. That feeling is especially heightened during their last meeting in the park, the inky blackness of her obscured face and figure matching the inky blackness around her. This is the first time he’s seen her as a woman, ready for marriage; the only other time he encountered her in the dark was when she relived the night of her parents’ death (also a kind of end to childhood). The visuals make a subtle association between mature sexual love and death, as though the anxiety he feels that Jennie will soon be taken away from him by the repetition of her death is, in part, his anxiety about translating this idealized relationship into sexual terms.
Of course, if one takes the film to be about artistic inspiration, Eben is anxious because completing the portrait means that the subject will be “used up,” and Jennie—or the spirit for this particular, breakthrough artwork—will no longer be with him. In that sense, to paint Jennie is to kill her. But from the portrait subject’s perspective, too, to be painted is to die, a connection that has never been put more bluntly than when Henry James has Milly Theale react to a man’s attempt to flatter her by comparing her to a portrait by describing the woman to herself, in contrast to herself, as “dead, dead, dead.” Jennie has journeyed through time to find Eben so that, inspired by his love for her, he will immortalize her. Yet, although she will transcend death by being loved and becoming a piece of art, the process of turning her into art itself does violence to her, since it relies on assumptions about womanhood that underlie the portrait film as a genre. We witness, in a sped-up form that serves to emphasize it, the process of socialization that transforms Jennie from a fey, feisty, mentally and physically mobile little girl to a calm, sedate, somewhat melancholy woman. Only as the latter does she become an ideal portrait subject by embodying the “essence” of femininity.
And so during the final sitting, while Jennie talks to Eben about the misgivings of her “funny mind,” more slowly than she used to, August films her as if through a heavy mist, or a haze of sunlight, as though the light with which she’s been so strongly associated is now her enemy, swallowing her up instead of delivering her. She nods off, at last falling completely silent, while Eben, intent on finishing the portrait at that moment, doesn’t even notice. For once, Eben’s reaction to Jennie and the viewer’s reaction are not the same. When, portrait complete, he does look at her, we are given a shocking close-up of the still, silent Jennie behind a hazy gauze, as if trapped far behind, or deep within, the canvas/movie screen. Because it’s able to give us the little girl in all of her mobility and volubility, film is somewhat better than a painting at representing life while also preserving it. But by depicting the relentless, Paterian forward rush of time, it also leaves the child, and the enchanted moment, behind.