The Portrait of Jennie is a black and white movie made in 1948 that I saw recently. It is about an artist finding his inspiration for his work through an imaginary love in his life. The voice-over goes “the winter of the artist is not the cold in the wind but the cold in the indifference of the people towards the beauty around them”. Then there is a tag-line by an art dealer “… an artist must find something he really cares about…”. The movie is about the soul of an artist and the struggles he has to go through to create the divine spark in him.
The movie has some interesting characters Mrs. Spinney an old lady who trades with portraits and sees in Eben her onetime beau, the painter Eben Adams who struggles to find his spark, follow his soul and make a living at the same time, the mechanic Guz who admires Eben and tries to give some pragmatic help. And of course there is Jennie herself played by the great Jennifer Jones who is an actress I like the most. She is awesome when she plays the role of a poignant naive girl who has in her demeanor something deeply mysterious about her. She plays a very similar role in the movie the Song of Bernadette.
In this movie she appears as the ghost of a dead girl whom Eben Adams falls in love with, completely enamored in her naivety and the timeless mystery that shrouds her. The first time he meets her she is a little girl out alone in the dark and she sings in the most captivating poignant voice “Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes… The wind blows, the sea flows nobody knows… and where I am going nobody knows” no matter how many times I see this, I feel like I am seeing it for the first time. It is just so full of simplicity, sadness and mystery.
The little girl asks him if he would wait for her to grow up so that she can marry him and then she runs off leaving him wondering how funny the little girl was. He goes home and draws her portrait as a little girl. He captures the melancholy and mystery about the little girl. Mrs. Spinney is impressed.
Now, Eben meets the girl again suddenly she had grown too quickly. They talk and then she goes off only to come back a few days later much grown, grown enough to be married. He draws a portrait of hers and falls in love with her. She goes off again, now he decides to track her and realizes that she had been dead for many years. He goes searching for the place that she got drowned to seek and find himself there as he was lost without her, his inspiration was gone.
The portrait that he does of her is the “Portrait of Jennie”. Mr. Mathews an art dealer comments that it was a stroke of a genius where the essence of a woman had been captured. The essence of a woman says Mr. Mathews is her mystery and timelessness. When Eben and Jennie part for the last time, Jennie tells Eben that his portrait of hers should hang in a Museum which many other girls would come to see her and so it was
In the beginning of the movie, when a disgruntled Ebens tries to sell his passionless paintings to Mrs. Spinney, she tells him “… Andrea Del Sarto drew a perfect hand and Rafael drew a formless claw, Andrea Del Sarto had everything and nothing but Rafael loved his work… poor Andrea Del Sarto (didn’t) …” then she continues “there isn’t a drop of love in any of these (paintings of yours)… an artist must have something he ‘deeply’ cares about” and then buys from him a painting worth less than $2 for $13. When Mr. Mathews questions her as to why she did it, she says that it was not because of what the picture was worth but because of what Eben Adams was worth. In spite of his loveless creation she was able to see something in him that could be unlocked by love and so it was. She tires her best to help him.
Eben has another helper, a mechanic friend Guz who is a kind of a pragmatic philosopher, though that is more of an oxymoron, who empathizes with Eben saying things like, “if there is star-dust in your head, there is a jumble in your soul” and in a way understands and respects the kind of agony Ebens undergoes. Guz gets him a contract to paint and make money, Ebens completes it and gets more fame, a heavier pocket and an empty soul. Guz realizes that he cannot help Ebens much.
There is only one person who can uncork Ebens and that is Jennie or rather the timeless love of Jennie. The movie is a depiction of timeless love in which the pair defy time and space. Unsure of what is to happen of their love, Ebens says ‘the greatest distance I fear now is the distance between today and tomorrow’. It is this ageless romance that kindles in him the flame which would capture that mystery and timelessness of the ‘Portrait of Jennie’.