EDVARD MUNCH - A FILM BY PETER WATKINS

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During his lifetime, Edvard Munch was Norway’s most controversial and critically reviled artist. He was also something of an enigma, and the fact that Peter Watkins’ remarkable 1974 documentary was able to give the mystery of Munch some clarity is one of the many reasons the film is so fascinating to watch. With the menu option to view the film in two parts or to play it for the whole uninterrupted three and a half hours, there might be an understandable feeling of dread when this disc first slips into the blu-ray player, but you’ve really no need to worry. This is a very fine film indeed.

Beginning at the start of Munch’s life when the young Edvard almost died from consumption (a disease that killed both his mother and his little sister), the film quickly follows him into adulthood where, as a struggling painter, Munch’s doomed affair with a married woman was unconsciously set to dominate him and his work for the rest of his days. From here, Watkins charts Munch’s development as an artist and his evolution through the different artistic mediums – from paint to etching to woodcuts to lithography. But there wasn’t a moment when the majority of the critics (and, seemingly, the public) didn’t despise him. Even when Munch moved to France and then to Berlin, his art was almost universally maligned. More than that, many people regarded the frequent exhibitions of his work as scandalous, and the product of an insane mind. It is remarkable that he persisted, and that two of his best known masterpieces, ‘The Scream’ and ‘The Vampire’ (not the original title, it was renamed by one of Munch’s contemporaries), were born during that period when Munch’s critics were most vociferous.

Watkins dramatizes everything using a cast of mostly amateur actors, all of whom look convincingly authentic. Geir Westby, as Munch, and Gro Fraas, as his married lover Mrs Heiberg, are particularly striking. But the actors rarely speak and, when they do, it is often direct-to-camera, in heavily stylised monologue. It is an unseen narrator (Peter Watkins, himself), who tells the story.

But it isn’t just Munch who is documented. Plenty of time is given to the other men and women who orbit Munch’s world like discordant satellites, often breaking the fourth wall to stare out at us – sometimes coy, sometimes confronting – in a way that is deliberately reminiscent of one of Munch’s portraits. Watkins is also mindful of the passage of historical time, telling us what is happening in the rest of the world while Munch’s story unfolds, subtly reminding us that these events are taking place at a time of massive global unrest. It’s a neat trick that not only sets Munch’s life in context, it also gives the film nuance and texture.

Having said all of that, and although the film is also packed with complex social and philosophical themes that mirror the often morbid psychology of Munch’s art, this is a surprisingly easy documentary to watch. It is obvious why the great Ingmar Bergman called it “a work of genius”.

Very highly recommended.

EDVARD MUNCH / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: PETER WATKINS / STARRING: GEIR WESTBY, GRO FRAAS, JOHAN HALSBOG, LOTTE TEIG, GRO JARTO / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
 


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