Much like the complete portrait, Portrait of Jennie is a lovely feature where lovely people act lovely. There isn’t anything negative about that, but with such an overly sweeping narrative about the power of love and watching the actors fawn and gush about how in love they are, a bolt of lightning and a massive tidal wave is the shock to the system this film needs. My review is probably going to sound cynical despite my overall enjoyment of the feature, but much like cheap art the whole thing feels flat.
Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is a struggling artist whose work isn’t perceived as special. When he meets Jennie (Jennifer Jones) in the park she changes and inspires him. The problem is Jennie seems continually out of time and growing older in every encounter with Eben.
The Portrait of Dorian Gray is the obvious correlation to Portrait of Jennie in their respective subjects being immortalized on canvas. Although, where Dorian’s portrait keeps his soul, Jennie becomes tangential, acting as Eben’s muse. Eben Adams, a name only a few letters removed from Ansel Adams, has talent but little application for it. Jennie is the 1940s embodiment of the manic pixie dream girl, pushing Eben out of his shell while running into his arms and towards a date that’s already happened and will inevitably happen again.
Director William Dieterle, coming off the equally supernatural Devil and Daniel Webster, appears understanding of the plot’s limitations, utilizing a lean 86-minute runtime so the holes in the story can be dug too deeply. But despite Jones and Cotten being great, there just isn’t enough meat on the bone preventing this from coming off like a series of “I love you’s.” The progression of Jennie and Eben’s relationship contains some interesting elements.
Jennifer Jones’, a woman in possession of the same “strange, spiritual beauty” as her character, plays Jennie not too far removed from her star-making turn in The Song of Bernadette (playing another woman-child who, at one point, lives in a convent). Selznick originally dreamed of filming the same little girl throughout several years, aging Eben alongside her – would have had one on Richard Linklater – but instead he puts protegé/eventual wife Jones in increasingly sophisticated clothes. This would be a band-aid solution so Jones take a subtler step, deepening her already eloquent voice as Jennie gets older. Dressing her up simply makes her look like a woman wearing little girl doll clothes, but with the added benefit of a higher voice that progressively drops, you can ignore Jones’ age and focus on the performance.
My prior experience with Cotten’s work has been Niagara, where his cold and distant personality was a necessity. As a romantic leading man, paired up with Jones because Selznick knew Cotten was happily married, there’s a warmth within his character. The sequences between the duo where they’re wrapped in each other’s embrace contain a thin veneer of sexuality, predominately on Cotten’s end. I expected the two to reunite in death, but the film actually defies that idea by having Eben understand love is a tonic, providing inspiration and aiding him to become a better person and painter.
An early use of Technicolor garnered this an Academy Award for Best Special Effects and it’s a deserved award. A lightening bolt, eerily pronounced in green, seguing into a swirling green sky comes off like a conjuring of devilish spirits out to kill Jennie and Eben by any means necessary. The Heavens opening up sets off a high-stakes moment between the two characters, ramping up the belief these two will die for each other. It’s the shot to the arm the movie needs, a blast of a third act climax in an other tepid film. It also helps one forget the weird moments of drama in a movie that’s remarkably sentimental; an opening narration leads you to question whether you’re watching a romance or a documentary on nuclear holocaust. When Eben and Jennie meet, Jennie sings a sad song only for a whimsical, childlike theme to cut her off. These moments are rare, but come off like directorial confusion.
Portrait of Jennie is a well-made sentimental romance. Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten prove themselves a strong team. The majority of the film is rather bland, mired in romantic conventions, but a sharp and death-defying third act saves it.
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