Berlin 2015: ‘Life’ review


There is plenty of focus but little flash in Anton Corbijn’s Life (2015), a snapshot of one of cinema’s most enduring icons. A renowned photographer, Corbijn knows a thing or two about capturing the elusive essence of stardom, yet in his handsome portrait of James Dean’s burgeoning rise to fame there’s something noticeably absent from the frame. Observed from the vantage of one ambitious artist and his fascination with another, Life charts the symbiotic relationship of Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) and the then relatively unknown James Dean (Dane DeHaan). Stock notices Dean at a pool party thrown by director Nicholas Ray – pensive, disinterested and oozing charisma.

Having just completed Elia Kazan’s John Steinbeck adaptation East of Eden (1955), Dean is still a relatively minor player in the Hollywood Hills, but Stock notices something special about him and over the course of the coming months manages to get a commission to produce a photo essay for Life magazine about this emerging actor. Susan Sontag stated, “To photograph people is to violate them…” claiming that “…it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” It’s with this intent that Corbijn attempts to deconstruct the abiding image of Dean as a ‘rebel without a cause’. An icon of teenage disillusion in post-war America, Dean’s legacy continues to this day and the film pays testament to his cult status by presenting a shrewdly reverential portrait of his all-too fleeting existence.

Owen Pallett’s jazz-infused score and Corbijn’s sharp, conservative framing capture the essence of a decade in which America was shifting towards a more liberal perspective on life and the arts. DeHaan and Pattinson are also both terrific, at once elegant and charismatic, yet equally uncomfortable in the skins they inhabit. Dean’s ability to mirror the dilemmas of a disenfranchised generation of youngster made him a star and whilst DeHaan’s performance is a little over-exaggerated, he still manages to capture that sense of relatable despondency. This also affords Pattinson time out of the spotlight in one of his strongest roles to date. However, Life’s meticulous staging gives the impression that Corbijn is far more concerned with the images he aims to recreate rather than the emotions that ripples beneath them, with the friction and bubbling conflict that surfaces between these two artist never surpassing a gentle canter. If to look at a photograph is to participate in another’s person affairs, then Corbijn’s latest testifies to the notion that a picture is a way of imprisoning reality; it’s just a shame that in the reality Life presents us, the soul lingers just so slightly out-of-focus.

The 65th Berlin Film Festival takes place from 5-15 February 2015. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble