Make no mistake about it, "Edvard Munch," now at the DuPont Circle, is a class act, as good a film as has been made about artists and the creative process. But it is also a film that insists on being taken on its own, rigidly uncompromising terms, and that kind of an attitude is bound to create some difficulties.
Certainly no one will ever see a film called "The Short and Happy Life of Edvard Munch," and not just because the great Norwegian artist lived until he was 80.Munch's mother died of tuberculosis when he was 5, an older sister 10 years later, another sister went mad, his father and a brother died before he was 30 and the artist himself had a severe nervous breakdown when he was 45. So he was not just being poetic when he wrote, "Illness, madness and death are the dark angels who watched over my cradle and have accompanied me throughout life."
Yet out of this painful morass came superb art, the very foundation of the Expressionistic movement, art with titles like "Melancholy," "Anxiety," and "The Kiss of Death" that captured the tormented side of existence, the psychic agonies, terrors and miseries of a haunted inner reality. Said the artist: "I hear the scream of nature."
Director Peter Watkins, who meticulously created a post-Holocaust future in "The War Game," his best-known film, does not try and do the same for all of Munch's life. He concentrates on a crucial decade, from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s, but since his film is nearly three hours long, we get a bogglingly intense view of what those 10 years were like.
We see Munch first as a withdrawn young man in his 20s, living with his family in the Norwegian capital of Christiania, later Oslo. We see him last as an artist who has just begun to achieve international recognition, even though most critics are still referring to his work as the spittle of a madman.
In between we are shown, in exact detail, inner tensions, the personal and professional influences that molded Munch's creativity, with particular emphasis on the blighted love affairs, both his own and his friends', that fed the excruciating ambivalence toward women that especially marks his work.
What Watkins is after here is the diametric opposite of films like "Lust for Life" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy," where serious artistic lives are reduced to cornball - though undeniably crowd-pleasing - histronics. What the director shows us is a life unfolding, period. No one cuts off anyone's ear in this movie: The drama, the turmoil, are almost entirely internal.
Watkins manages to accomplish all this by using a rather complex narrative structure. The film is in Norwegian with English subtitles, but there are very few classic dramatic confrontations. Instead we get short scenes, reinforced by flashbacks, extensive voice-over narration in English, the reading of quotes from Munch's diary, and the use of a kind of "You Are There" interview technique which Watkins utilized in many of his earlier films.
This multiplicity of viewpoints is sometimes confusing, leading to an uncertainty as to who is saying what when. But overall it is quite affecting, with the words alternately reflecting, reinforcing or counterpointing the images. By the film's end, when Munch's art starts to coalesce out of his experiences, the images begin to marvelously coalesce as well.
All this helped enormously by the film's physical look. "Edvard Munch" carefully and artfully recreates, on apparently a not very large budget, mid-19th-century Europe, and uses light and color with enormous deftness and subtlety. And though Geir Westby, the young man who plays Munch, does not have to do much actual "acting" his physical resemblance to the artist is uncanny and he provides a faultless melancholy presence. Constantly hovering about with haunted eyes, puffing on a cigarette, he is very much the loner, the outsider, the man between.
All this good stuff notwithstanding, however, it is not quite possible to embrace "Edvard Munch" completely. For, like a distinguished maiden aunt who finds passionate kisses rather distasteful, this film really wants to be respected more than adored. One wishes to God it wasn't so rigorous, so determinedly anti-dramatic, so fiercely underplayed and uncompromising. But there it is.
And, heaven knows, Munch often found himself in situations that would drive shall we says "less disciplined" film directors like Ken Russell into a frenzy. There was his involvement with Dagny Ivell, a women who one Munch biographer claims "had a laugh that drove men wild." She was Munch's mistress, playwright August Strindberg's mistress, and the wife of a Polish sexual mystic named Stanislaw Przybyszewski, all pretty much at the same time. She is in the film all right, but Watkins treats that explosive romantic triangle plus one, as he does everything else, in the most recentlessly low-key way. Pity.
Finally, though, one doesn't really want to carp about "Edward Munch." It is very much a special kind of film, a film of quiet excellences that envelopes you with an excitement all its own, the excitement of quality. And the emotions of Munch's life, captured so well here, were so intense and so genuine it is impossible not to be affected by them.