Yes, it's art, but Judge Jesse Ataide assures you that Sister Wendy is nowhere to be found.
The man behind the scream.
If you know who Edvard Munch is, it's probably as the man behind "The Scream," one of the most iconic paintings of all time. With just a single glance at the writhing, lightbulb-like skeleton head, violently emphasized vanishing point and the turbulent swirls of reds, oranges and blue, one would probably guess that this is the creation of some kind of mentally unbalanced individual.
As Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch shows, it wouldn't be a bad guess. But at the same time, it's much, much more complicated than that.
Facts of the Case
Edvard Munch, who is to become Norway's most famous painter, is born in 1863 to decidedly bourgeois household. An aspiring young painter, Munch (Geir Westby) quickly falls into European art circles, populated by painters, poets, philosophers and critics and headed by the destructive and flamboyant August Strindberg (played by Alfe Kare Strindberg, a descendent of the famous playwright). This turgid, highly creative environment is on the verge of an artistic revolution later known as Expressionism, of which Munch will become a defining figure of.
But those are only the facts. There is so much more to the story.
Edvard Munch is perhaps the most creative, comprehensive, and even insightful depiction of artistic creation that I have ever seen on film. Focusing in on Munch's formative years as a young painter, director Peter Watkins discards the chronological linearity that seems such an essential element of the biopic genre, chopping up Munch's years as a teen and 20-something into little fragments and juxtaposing them with equally fragmented images from Munch's childhood and images representative of his cultural milieu. This makes Edvard Munch not just an examination of a single man's genius, but an equally faithful dissection of a historical moment, specifically as it pertains to the revolutionary innovations that were occurring in the European art community during the last years of the 19th century.
Edvard Munch is one of the rare films that really forces the viewer to evaluate the thin line that separates objectivity and subjectivity. Biopics, even the most shamelessly romanticized and convoluted examples of the genre, typically strive for some sense of objectivity: Watkins, on the other hand, seems to embrace the inherent subjectivity in portraying history, particularly personal history. In fact, by breaking down the fourth wall and having his actors constantly gaze directly into the camera, he invites, or perhaps more accurately dares the viewer into active participation in the unfolding story. This seems logical, for Watkins holds no romantic illusions in this film—of culture, of sexuality, of marriage, of family relationships, even of artistic genius—and so he in turn refuses to allow a passive (and very comfortable) viewer the illusion that they are viewing this story on some kind of detached, objective level.
This struggle between objectivity and subjectivity is further highlighted by the film's use of narration. Even though it is specifically stated that the information found in the narration is directly taken from Munch's own diaries, the unseen narrator (played by Watkins himself and spoken in English) attempts to give the flat, vaguely sympathetic monotonic tone one associates with "objectivity," be it found in film or on the nightly news. The narrator enlightens the viewer of important technical information in regards to the film—what year it is, the identity of previously unintroduced characters, etc. But at the same time, he is constantly giving historical information that seem to bear no direct influence on the film or Munch's own life (such as wars in various parts of the world and the births and deaths of famous individuals, be they Hitler or D.H. Lawrence). But this sense of objectivity is always undercut by what is being depicted on the screen, which is always intensely subjective in nature. This clash of objective vs. subjective truth proves to be vitally important to how the film plays out, and how the viewer interprets it.
Perhaps the consistent denial to romanticize Munch or his circumstances is what makes the film so compelling—instead of this seeming like a film centered on a single notable individual, Watkins plunks Munch squarely down into his cultural context, essentially forcing him to play in an ensemble piece instead of giving him the lead role we expect him to have. While it is recognized that Munch was a man of considerable genius—this is constantly reinforced by lingering shots of his radical artwork—Watkins doesn't allow that to serve as a free pass, either emotionally or thematically. Munch's descent into self-destruction and clear insanity isn't prettified in any way; neither is the painstaking and often painful process of self-realization and epiphany, be it emotional, spiritual, or artistic in nature.
Watkins accomplishes this in part by the non-chronological narrative of the film. Attempting to replicate the intricate, fractured nature of memory and its ongoing affect on a person's present reality, the entire film is interwoven with brief reoccurring images and scenes depicting memories that haunted Munch throughout his entire life. Frightening images of the bloody struggle with consumption that killed Munch's mother and sister, and almost killed him as well, regularly surface throughout the film, as do memories of Munch's stern, pious mother making her children promise to live good Christian lives before she passes away. This creative choice on Watkins' part not only serve as a demonstration of how these early events became an integral part of Munch's development as both a person and an artist, it also conveys the acute impact on his art and his behavior throughout his entire life, ultimately forcing the viewer to consider the high price Munch paid for his genius.
At first glance, it would seem that the image quality of this DVD is noticeably poor, but it quickly becomes apparent that the mediocre image quality was fully intentional on Watkins and cinematographer Odd-Geir Sæther's part, as if trying to enhance the hazy, rough quality of distant memories. It should also be kept in mind Edvard Munch's origins as a film made for television, which also affects its quality somewhat.
With these considerations, it is also obvious that New Yorker has done a fantastic job in its presentation for the DVD market. The image is as good as could possibly be expected from a film of this nature; the audio track is also about as good as one could possibly hope for. As for bonus features, unless one happens to find a listing of Watkins' filmography of particular value, the only extra of consequence is the comprehensive linear notes in which Watkins interviews himself (which is extremely informative).
This is the second DVD I've reviewed in the last two weeks stemming from a collaboration of New Yorker and Project X (the other being the phenomenal Swedish feminist classic Loving Couples). Keep them coming, I say. These are quality films that all film buffs interested in innovative foreign cinema should actively seek out.
I mean, Ingmar Bergman himself is quoted as saying that Edvard Munch is a "work of genius." You don't have to take my word for it, but are you willing to contradict the Swedish master?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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