Venice 2012: ‘The Life & Death of Marina Abramović’ review


Bob Wilson’s Life & Death of Marina Abramović (2012) director Giada Colagrande has the good fortune to be married to one of Hollywood’s most multifaceted actors, Willem Dafoe, and to have been a good friend of Abramović from the tender age of 19, making her a shoo-in for the task of recording Robert Wilson’s theatre production The Life & Death of Marina Abramović on film. This is not to detract from her long career as director, writer and actress – but let’s say it helps.

This 2012 documentary depicts the gathering together of some of the most talented people in the arts: the provocative artist Marina Abramović, famous for performances that include self-mutilation; the aforementioned Dafoe, with the gravelliest voice in the business; avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson; and angel-voiced Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons fame), who wrote the music for the piece and also performs.

The idea stemmed from Abramović calling Wilson, asking him to organise her funeral. From this came the staging of the artist’s life, starting with her funeral, via her traumatic and violent childhood through to adulthood, before ending with her spirit levitating above her body. Colagrande follows the rehearsals and performances, interspersing scenes with talking-head interviews. The stars are often interviewed in full make-up and thus we have the erstwhile Green Goblin looking disconcertingly like Jim Carey’s Batman enemy, The Riddler.

Looking more like a Pierrot than a comic book character, Abramović talks about the reasons behind putting her life on stage. For those who know Abramović’s work, it is interesting to see this apparently indestructible performer shedding tears as she confesses that having her past re-enacted is a gruelling and anguished process. She mentions that the most difficult part of performing under Wilson’s direction is the relinquishing of artistic power. Thanks to Wilson’s piece, we can better understand why this damaged woman is simultaneously both controlling yet constantly putting herself in danger of great physical harm.

For all of this, Colagrande’s Bob Wilson’s Life & Death of Marina Abramović is bog-standard documentary work. There is nothing new here in terms of technique and – in a year that has spawned some of the most interesting and groundbreaking documentaries – it adds nothing to the genre. The director works on the assumption that the protagonists of her film are sufficiently famous to require no introduction. This could work well as a companion piece to Matthew Akers’ recently released The Artist is Present, but only for fans of this brave and challenging artist.

The 69th Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August-8 September. For more of our Venice 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.

Jo-Ann Titmarsh