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BIFF film review: ‘Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz’ offers authentic look at satirical artist

Denver-based CU Boulder alumna will appear in person at Saturday's screening

Artist Suzanne Heintz has embarked on an entertaining photographic crusade to challenge stereotypes. “Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz” will make its Colorado premiere at First United Methodist Church on Saturday March 7 at 5:15 p.m. (Suzanne Heintz/Polaris Images/Courtesy photo)
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At the start of “Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz,” viewers get to see glimpses of the artist getting ready — primping, if you will. The ritual of having her hair delicately coiffed to perfection with pin curls, a close-up of mascara resting near a myriad of bejeweled clip-on earrings and the action of rolling a crimson skirt up over a Spanx-like girdle all speak to the lengths women go to to render themselves suitable for public viewing.

We soon realize — with the on-screen presence of a dead-eyed, red-haired mannequin — that these aren’t just shots of a female getting dolled up for a night out. For two decades, Denver-based artist Suzanne Heintz has fought — one camera click at a time — against the societal pressures of just what a woman should be. By staging incredibly cheesy, yet intriguing and elaborate, photo shoots with her mannequin husband, Chauncey, and mannequin daughter, Mary Margaret, she has artfully explored the concept of self and combated the notion that the ultimate echelon for females is reached only when they take someone’s name and produce offspring.

“Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz” will make its Colorado premiere at BIFF on Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Boulder. (Suzanne Heintz/Polaris Images/Courtesy photo)

“Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz,” directed by Karen Whitehead, produced by Katherine De Francis and edited by Pippa McBride, gives folks a behind-the-scenes look into the colorful and sometimes-chaotic world of Heintz. We follow the photographer, a New York-born, Mormon-raised and University of Colorado Boulder alumna, as she travels to Paris and London in search of the perfect backdrops for her pseudo-nuclear family to gather. From the red rocks of Utah to a Big Apple rooftop, the trio, outfitted in vintage frocks she uncovers at estate sales, surfaces in a variety of locations.

Heintz is just as much Lucille Ball as she is Gloria Steinem.

Through insightful interviews with Heintz’s friends, fans, brother, sister, boyfriend and mother we get to know more about the woman at the root of the glossy images. In footage captured by a dashboard cam, Heintz candidly chats about her lack of sleep and the sacrifices that coincide with crafting the fake family portraiture. Relatable and real, in a sense, she is everything her over-stylized work is not. Self-described as “a loud-mouthed girl from Yonkers,” she refuses to fit into any mold not of her making.

In “Imitating Life,” Heintz allows documentary cameras to capture her makeup free, sometimes post-shower donning a robe and a towel on her head while sipping coffee in her home. Vulnerability is perhaps her greatest attribute.

“Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz” will make its Colorado premiere at BIFF on Saturday March 7 at First United Methodist Church in Boulder. (Suzanne Heintz/Polaris Images/Courtesy photo)

Viewers see Heintz celebrating her first solo photography show at Longmont’s Firehouse Art Center in 2015. They are also allowed into the surprising locale of a medical center. During the course of the 67-minute feature, Heintz reveals the news that she has a brain tumor, for which she is undergoing radiation treatment. Turning the scary diagnosis into a photo opp, she stages one of her infamous Christmas card pictures in a hospital bed.

While feminist undertones can be found throughout the film, it’s more of an intimate peek inside the mind of a satirical artist who uses humor to evoke emotions in onlookers and to foster dialogue about the unattainable archetypes set forth for both men and women. This film is sure to resonate with anyone who has ever felt the urge to revolt against the trappings of conformity — whatever that may look like in their lives.

Artist Suzanne Heintz poses with her mannequin family in New York City. “Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz” will make its Colorado premiere at BIFF on Saturday, March 7 at First United Methodist Church in Boulder. (Suzanne Heintz/Polaris Images/Courtesy photo)

Her work is a sort of kitschy time capsule displaying the Rockwellian ideals of previous generations, while still feeling very relevant today in terms of the existing pressures felt by others to maintain a version of flawlessness or at least to project that filtered version to the outside world.

Although the glimmering pearls and fur stoles embody a style that is very much a homage to that of the ‘50s and ‘60s, her body of work also hints at the current desire — and perhaps addiction — so many have to curate their lives via social media platforms such as Instagram. It is sure to ignite introspection about the images we set out to achieve, share and then receive feedback on.

It’s clear although Heintz’s passion project is one she holds dear, she doesn’t necessarily take herself too seriously. Pretentious she is not. Honest she is. At one point in the film, she dives into the other side of what it means to go viral by reading less-than-favorable online comments left on Reddit. The harsh judgment she receives from some via the web fits perfectly into the film by spotlighting how quick others are to pull apart a woman’s looks and label her crazy.

From high winds damaging expensive equipment to her health scare, we bear witness to a woman overcoming challenges, laughing while doing so, evolving and ultimately playing by her own rules.

Much like the intricate, candy-shaded snapshots by Heintz, this film draws folks in. With honest insight, candid revelations and a pace that never dwindles, “Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz” offers an authentic and engaging portrait that is far from synthetic.


If you go

What: “Imitating Life: The Audacity of Suzanne Heintz”

When: 5:15 p.m. Saturday

Where: First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder

Cost: $15-$16

More info: suzanneheintz.com

 

 

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