The Governess (1998)

This amazing film by director Sandra Goldbacher is a wonderful piece of visual poetry based on an intriguing story. But beyond its qualities as a film, I see it as a gem metaphor of the age-old conflict between photography as art expression and photography as documentation of reality. A classic must-see if you are even remotely interested in the visual arts.

Rosina, a Jewish girl from London in the 1840s and an aspiring actress, gets her wish fulfilled in an unusual way. After the death of her father, she changes her name and identity to become the teacher to the little girl of a noble Scottish family. And that’s the rebellious daughter of quite a dysfunctional household. While the mother languishes in isolation from the artistic life of London (to which she has never actually been), the father spends his days separately, engrossed in scientific experiments and geologic documentation. Even if the film might not be based on actual historic events, it’s a pretty good summary of the divisive attitudes between the arts and sciences in positivist Europe.

It takes Rosina, now Mary Blackchurch, to symbolically bridge that divide. Charles Cavendish’s scientific ambitions are seduced by Mary’s mysterious appeal. And their relationship is fulfilled through photography. As Mary becomes his knowledgeable assistant, they work together to find a way to fix the photographic images of hands Charles has been creating.

But his photographic intention has nothing to do with art. Just like his interest in fossils, he sees photography as the perfect way to fossilize the world in documents for future reference. In fact, Mary seduces Charles when she suggests a different kind of record: instead of contact prints of hands, a (fictitious) documentation of some sensual stories from the Bible – the ones of women from the Old Testament, with which she obviously identifies. The exploration of those mystical images of women who – according to the Bible at least – have really existed,  capture Charles’s soul and the conflicting, ambiguous nature of what we understand today as photography is born.

Well, photography has always suffered from this ambiguity of purpose: a mechanical device to keep record or visual fiction. And love has always been unexplained, on the margin between mysticism and the real world. Following her desires of the heart – her lonely Sabbath ritual connecting her with her suppressed inner self – Rosina discovers through inspiration and accident an effective fixing method. Still, their relationship is doomed. Charles rejects her almost out of fear for having given up his essence of a scientist and even denies her due recognition in patenting their discovery. Absent her conscious intention in the discovery process, he claims it’s not really her but Chance who discovered the fixing agent.

You’d think the film makes the case for photography as art, finally? Not really and that argument is full of allegoric gestures. Rosina presents Charles’s wife with photographic evidence of their relationship,  steals his camera and goes off to realize the dream she had for both, to open a photographic studio. In the end, she does indeed document – “the beauty of her father’s people”. She aims to present something real, her people, yet she does it by managing to elicit the beauty and interior poetry of those who stand in front of her lens.

Photography will always be a mix between art and documentation. And the degree to which the balance tilts will make up its uniqueness, every time.

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