Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Peter Watkins, 1974
I watched this film over the weekend - a biopic following the early years of Edvard Munch's development as a painter and increasingly isolated man. From what I can gather, the film was originally shot for television with a runtime of 211 minutes. I was originally going to watch the film over the course of a couple of sittings, but as it turned out, three and a half hours passed quicker than expected
Written and directed by Peter Watkins, this portrayal of an artist is unlike anything I've seen before in terms of a film depicting an artist's biography. Using Munch's personal diaries as reference for the screenplay, from the very start it's clear that Watkins is not only challenging the conventions of the genre, but of film making. Using a cast of unknown actors, the overriding style of the direction is like that of an early Ken Loach film, with it's voyeuristic 'fly-on-the-wall' camera work and gritty realism. What's more unusual is that the characters, especially Geir Westby who plays Munch, regularly acknowledge the camera to make eye contact with the viewer. Adding further to the naturalism, the film is filled with natural lighting and the cool colours of its Norwegian setting, often creating grainy and muted tones similar to some of Munch's paintings
The chronology of Munch's life in the film follows his formative years as a painter and printmaker from 1884 to 1894. What makes the film so fascinating is the way that significant moments in Munch's life are continuously repeated and played back as snapshots that are clearly moulding his psyche. These include family illness and death from tuberculosis, his obsessive and troubled encounters with women, and moments of emotional crisis. The film's audio is utilised in a very similar way by often layering dialogue with sound that is different to what is on-screen. The script is quite minimal and spoken in Norwegian, with Munch's isolation fittingly reflected in his lack of words. In addition to this, Watkins provides a commentary of important facts and references that form clear historical signposts throughout the film. Spoken in English, his voice sounds formal and objective, not unlike the voice of John Berger throughout Ways of Seeing
As a fan of Munch's work, this film gave me a rich insight into the context of his development, as well as his importance as an artist in the history of Modern Art. Despite his severe emotional problems and crippling isolation, I felt quite inspired by his determination of work in the face of such hostility and rejection.
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