Classic Film of the Week #20: Portrait of Jennie (1948)

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 Earlier in this series, I discussed A Matter of Life and Death, a fantastical film that sees death defied in the name of love. Portrait of Jennie is another fantasy film with romance at its core, but this time, a lot more than just death is standing between our two lovers: the very barriers of time and space separate them. Only in brief, magical moments do these walls come down and allow the pair to come together. But each time they meet, Jennie is older, and there is a sense of this romance hurtling towards some kind of endpoint as their meetings become less frequent, with longer lapses of time in-between. Will the passage of time itself stand aside for the artist and his muse, or are they doomed to lead separate lives in different eras of time, never again to meet?

I was once a big Doctor Who fan, and throughout this film I was reminded of that show: so many of the core themes (at least in the contemporary series) are present here, especially the concept of a man trying to solve the mystery of a girl who he loves, but who is always just out of reach, pulled away by the forces of time. I wonder if the writers of that show were at all inspired by this film when crafting characters like Amy Pond and Clara. However, this film is not sci-fi and does not seek to explain the phenomenon of Jennie: the explanation is, essentially, that love is magic, and for this film, that's an acceptable answer.

Because this is a film that really does feel magic. Like A Matter of Life and Death, it crafts a cinematic world that is so rich, with characters who are so well-drawn, that it doesn't matter if the fantasy elements don't totally make sense. I especially loved the first act of the film, taking place in NYC in winter with snow covering the ground. The film has gorgeous cinematography--much of it shot on-location--and the beautiful, snowy scenery captured here creates a dreamlike atmosphere for the early meetings between Joseph Cotten's Eben Adams and Jennifer Jones' Jennie.

I mentioned in my recap post at the beginning of the month that I had never seen a Jennifer Jones film, and intended to watch as many of her films airing during TCM's Star of the Month tribute for her as I could. This is the first one I've seen, and already I'm very taken with Jones. Her acting in the early scenes does have a feeling of artificiality to it, but what can you expect from a 29-year old woman trying to capture the naive spontaneity of a young girl? As her character ages, her acting becomes more and more natural, until she has the opportunity to put in a truly wonderful and fully-realized performance in the final act of the film.

This is a narrative that takes its time, never rushing through anything and giving each development sufficient room to breathe. But at the same time, it avoids many of the story-beats you would expect from this kind of melodramatic romance, ultimately coming across as strangely fresh, especially in the scenes between Eben and Jennie. Each of their meetings functions as a short story within the film--there's a clear beginning, middle, and end--but you never know quite how they're going to go. This is a special film that has some real surprises up its sleeve in how it chooses to tell this story. In particular, I liked that Jennie often forgets the details of her interactions with Eben: from her perspective, years pass between these conversations, and it would be strange if she recalled them as well as he does. It's these little details that the film gets so right and elevates it above simply being a "good" film into something that just might be a masterpiece.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Portrait of Jennie is the deep sense of sadness it conveys. It's a film about characters who long for something, and in the end, they only get a taste of it--the full realization of what they want is left an intangible dream. The film posits that having something really perfect and beautiful for only a short time is better than never having had it at all, and whether you agree with this message or not, the elegant sincerity with which it is conveyed is incredibly moving.

Portrait of Jennie comes highly recommended.

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