Pros:the art and simulation of its making
Cons:flat characters portrayed by nonactors, very long and turgid
The Bottom Line: A bad movie, questionable cinema, yet not a total waste
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Recommend this product?
Ingmar Bergman proclaimed Peter Watkins’s unconventional 1974 biopic of Edvard Munch (1863-1944) a "work of genius." A good movie, it is not, though I readily grant that it provides insight into the work of the Norwegian expressionist painter known (outside Norway, where most of his paintings remain) for “The Scream.”
In that painters do something that is visible, they make better subjects for biopics than writers, and in this movie the scratching of the painted surface, a paring down prefiguring Alberto Giacometti, is on display, plus some brushwork. The images are augmented by a flat-affect narration (in English by Watkins) that claims to come from Munch’s diaries, but include a lot of irrelevant (to Munch’s life and artistic development) factoids (the year of the birth of Hitler, of Goering, this or that war).
The extremely fragmented movie keeps flashing bits of scenes of youth, a time of “illness, insanity, and death,” according to Munch, dramatized in his large painting “Death in the Sickroom”—with a sister in her deathbead. The most recurrent images (memories) are siblings on the way to coughing themselves to death (coughing blood: tuberculosis, which killed his mother and nearly killed him during his adolescence) and a meeting with a married woman, "Mrs. Heiberg" (Gro Fraas) who was Munch’s mistress for a while.
The movie provides lots of documentation of the rejection of Munch’s art in Oslo and Berlin. Withering reviews are quoted and some of those visiting the exhibitions deliver their opinions, most of which are scandalized by both technique and subject matter.
I did not detect anything I would consider character development despite the high number of different junctures portrayed. It did not help that the adult Munch was played by one actor (Geir Westby) who was not aged over the course of the movie. Also, he never showed any emotion whether with family, in exhibits of his work during which it was reviled by many in attendance, in his sexual liaisons, or in the Bohemian circle that included the Swedish writer August Strindberg (played by one of his descendants, Alfe Kare Strindberg, who has a bit of charisma).•
The made-for-tv movie was often underlit and very, very, very grainy, perhaps a video equivalent of scraping away prettiness to show the essences of the paintings? (Watkins superived the transfer to DVD, so one can presume it looks how he wanted it to look.) Had I seen the movie before a massive loan from the Munch Museum during its remodeling that made a Munch retrospective exhibit in San Francisco (and elsewhere) possible, I would have welcomed the movie for showing works other than “The Scream.” Munch’s other paintings that reside in Oslo (Kristiania in Munch’s time) usually should be better known (IMHO). The paintings do not flash by; there is time to contemplate them, though not silently.
The dialogue (including some pseudo-interviews of Norwegian workers of the 1880s) is in Norwegian, the narration (I’d estimate more total words) in English. The DVD permits the dialogue also to be heard in dubbed English (but not the narration in dubbed Norwegian…). Subtitles in French are also available (the English subtitles do not cover the English narration, btw).
The DVD only includes a one-screen Watkins filmography, though an extensive text by Watkins is included in a booklet that I have not seen. The director’s version was 210 minutes. The DVD does not include the 32 minutes cut for the 1976 theatrical release.
* Watkins made a turgid and nonlinear 1994 film about Strinberg (1849-1912) “Fritänkaren” (The Freethinker, the title of Strinberg’s first still-extant play, staged in 1870). And not really challenging my claim that painters make better subjects of biopics than writers is the also quite long but far more absorbing portrayal of the Norwegian Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Knut Hamsum (1859-1952), portrayed by Max von Sydow in Jan Troell's phenomenal "Hamsum" (1996). That film mostly concerns Hamsum long after he wrote the works (such as Hunger) that earned him the Nobel Prize, and it does not show him writing.
Viewing Format: DVD