Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Edvard Munch (1974)

"Here and now, a new phase begins in the history of art, and you can say that you witnessed it." I couldn't have put it better. The modus operandi of this eerily convincing faux-documentary by Peter Watkins about the title painter is to make history come to life by dropping the viewer in the middle of it, allowing context to grow from allusion and association. In doing so, Watkins neatly sidesteps a major pitfall of the average biopic; framing his film as a you-are-there true-life tale allows Watkins to move in a more-or-less freeform fashion, thereby negating the need to create forced narratives and character arcs. Though the film proceeds in general chronological order, skillful editing allows the film to pitch back and forth in time, often returning to significant moments (Munch sick as a child, for instance) or conceptually linking two pieces of history (a love scene intercut with a crying young Munch, suggesting the guilt that haunted the man through much of his life). There's also a sneaky sense of irony engrained into this portrait -- Munch, as depicted here, is an island of self-absorbment adrift in a mass of changes, and the changes he spurs in the art world are borne from his unwillingness to engage in the social changes of the day. As one character says of him, "He's more interested in painting light and shadow than in social conditions," yet Watkins is careful to delineate the specific texture and injustices of this world from which Munch retreats. The societal turmoil (religious, social, medical, and otherwise) that surround Munch informs and reflects the inner turmoil that bleeds out into his Expressionistic paintings even as his life story voluntarily stands apart from it. The immense length allows for a certain level of repetition and affirmation, and I think Watkins lets the film go a bit too slack at times; nevertheless, this is pretty impressive.

Grade: B+


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