Cinema is Truth: Portrait of Jennie (1948)

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PORTRAIT OF JENNIE
Directed by William Dieterle, written by Paul Osborn and Peter Berneis
Review by: Brittany Alyse

”I know we were meant to be together. The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart.”

What’s that place you visit, between asleep and awake, when the haze of realism and fantasy blend together when you are at your most vulnerable state of consciousness? That is what the entirety of PORTRAIT OF JENNIE feels like. It’s a uniquely effective film that draws you in and puts you under a spell so deep that you’ll continue to be mystified long after the film is over.

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Eben Adams, an immensely talented and struggling artist, wanders through the New York winter, his paintings at his side. He takes his work a local gallery. The owners see his potential but believe he is capable of more. “There isn’t a drop of love in any of these,” says one of the owners, upon surveying Eben’s work -- all lonely landscapes and inanimate objects. Despite her criticisms, the woman buys a painting of a flower from Eben, unbeknownst to him, for herself.

Once Eben leaves the gallery, he wanders through the park, cold and hungry, his eyes on the horizon and it looks like a painting. He ponders to himself about how the sunset looks as if it’s from another time, and just right after he says that, we get our introduction to Jennie Appleton. She builds a snowman as eerie organ music plays over the scene, and it becomes the perfect, constant tune that marries itself perfectly to Jennie’s otherworldly scenes throughout the film.

Upon their introduction, Jennie immediately seems out of place, dressed in old clothing and sings him a haunting tune: 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. The two of them spend some time talking, Jennie tells him about her parents, acrobats at Hammerstein’s Victoria, a place that Eben knows to have been torn down years ago. Eben shows her his paintings, and Jennie proclaims that he should not paint plates, but people instead.

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Before their meeting comes to an end, Jennie makes him play a wishing game. Her wish being that he waits for her until she grows up. Her odd, yet charming demeanor catches Eben entirely off-guard. When she departs, it’s like she almost vanishes, leaving behind her parcel before Eben can give it back to her. When he returns home, he opens her parcel to discover that it’s a beautiful scarf.

The encounter and the haunting tune Jennie sang ignites Eben’s inspiration immediately, in ways he cannot fathom. He begins to sketch a portrait of her, the beginning of an artistic venture that will change his life forever.

Though charmed and inspired by his meeting with Jennie, Eben is awestruck and skeptical when he realizes that the newspaper that her scarf was wrapped in is dated from 1910. He studies the paper, zoning in on an ad for the Hammerstein’s Victoria, with The Appleton’s high-wire act front and center on the headliner act. How is this possible? How could she be from that time, but have encountered him in the present?
“She was real,” Eben proclaims. She was real.

Upon finishing his sketch of Jennie, Eben takes it to the gallery. The gallery owners are impressed with Eben’s portrait of young Jennie, one of them remarking about how much it comforts him that she seems as though she’s from the past. As he sells another painting, he sings Jennie’s tune, jolly and upbeat with twenty-five dollars in his pocket.

Eben goes straight from the gallery to the park to ice skate. And as fate would have it, he encounters Jennie again. It seems as though Jennie’s wishing game wish came true in a very short amount of time. She is older. Still elusive and dream-like. When their time is up, he watches her skate away and vanish into the blistering sunlight, and it is then that Eben realizes that something is, in fact, not quite right about her. When they are apart, he does whatever he can to find out all he can about her. Eben investigates Jennie’s parents, following the trail all the way to a woman named Clara who knew the Appletons and Jennie, back in 1910. With this, Eben begins to question everything about their meetings, wondering how this could be possible.

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The presence of Jennie always feels like this ethereal state that's both charming and a little unsettling. For example, Eben tries to return Jennie’s scarf to her multiple times in the film, and Jennie never seems to remember it being hers. Another unsettling reoccurrence is that every time she sees his painting of the sea and the lighthouse, she instantly goes cold and very far away. Something about it frightens her, and she says so, every single time.

With each progressive meeting, Eben encounters a more mature Jennie. She’s older and tells him about her time at the convent and how much it has changed her life. With her womanhood fast approaching, Eben’s platonic feelings quickly turn into a blossoming love. Along with this blossoming love affair, they realize that their time together is fated and precious. One of my favorite exchanges is when Eben asks, "When is tomorrow, Jennie?" And Jennie replies, "Does it matter? It's always. This was tomorrow once." - Such simple, beautiful dialogue.

My favorite scene in the film is where an adult Jennie sits for Eben as he finishes painting her new portrait. The screen becomes cloudy, and Jennie muses to Eben about knowing what might lie ahead, about feeling sad about things that have never happened and about things that are going to happen. Jennie stares dreamily into nothingness, calling her mind “funny” and closes her eyes. As soon as her eyes shut, she seems to be paused in time, so still it’s almost frightening. Eben shakes her awake, and she comes to again, animated and bright. It is a beautiful scene, both so touching and heartbreaking. Jennifer Jones just nails it.

After this romantic evening with Eben, Jennie vanishes again. Eben is crushed, so much, in fact, that he tries to find her at her convent, knowing perfectly well that she will not be there. There he meets Jennie’s favorite teacher, Mother Mary of Mercy, played by Lillian Gish, who answers all of Eben’s questions. Mother Mary describes Jennie as a lovely girl with a strange sort of beauty and a gentle kind of sadness that always troubled her. That sounds like her, Eben says.

Through Mary, Eben makes the discovery that Jennie is actually dead, and had died years ago. The sad and real truth is being that Jennie had rowed herself to Cape Cod, where strong waves took her life away. This is something Eben cannot believe or accept, and of course, how can he? Not when Jennie has been this real, tangible person for him for months now. How can he possibly believe that she is actually dead?

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This takes Eben to the supposed place of her demise: an island called Land’s End. He races to connect with her and possibly change the course of their lives. This is where the film’s truly most artistic and beautiful scenes begin: a bolt of lightning strikes and the picture switches suddenly from black and white, to a green tint overlaying the scene. The sea rages, the wind howls, the rain pours, the music swells - and Eben crashes onto the island. He calls out for Jennie and desperately searches the lighthouse for any sign of her as the storm worsens. He calls out for her, “Jennie!” over and over again until….

”Eben!” Jennie calls out back to him, her boat crashing onto the island the same way his did. They race toward each other, the waves thrashing against the rocks as they crash into each other’s arms. It’s a rush against time as Eben tries to get Jennie to leave with him before the wave hits again, and Jennie proclaims, “We have all eternity together, Eben. Can’t you see? We were lonely, unloved. Time made an error. But you waited for me, and now we have our love. There is no life, my darling, until you have loved and been loved! And then there is no death!” After she says this, the doomed wave comes, threatening to pull Jennie away. And it does. The sea engulfs Jennie, and Eben holds onto her for dear life. Jennie pleads for Eben to let her go. He doesn’t, but the sea takes her anyway. It is then that we understand that fate would always pull her back into the sea, time and time again. Not even true love could stop that.

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This is such a peculiar little film that has a ton of heart. Words don’t exactly do it justice. It’s something you have to see for yourself. It's both ahead of its time and a product of its time. A story that feels haunted and futuristic. It plays with time, love and life. It's filled with beautiful musings, and such striking imagery that sincerely caught me off guard. It's a film that doesn't explain the why's and the how’s. An excuse to exercise the imagination, perhaps. Jennie’s ghostly return to the real world is simple: to find her true love, in Eben. It’s a time-traveling ghost story that plays with the veil between both worlds, in the name of love itself.