Edvard Munch’s paintings were critically savaged in his lifetime. His preference for personal expression over natural representation shocked an art world not yet ready to peer inside the mind of a man racked with dread and anxiety. This is the core message of Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch – a film which is unflinchingly bleak, but only in its pursuit of a comprehensive atmosphere to match the life of a very troubled man.
Watkins’ technique of collage-like editing confuses time and memory within a linear account of Munch’s life and its narrative technique is very distinct – blending historical reenactment alongside genuine interviews with its nonprofessional cast. All this combines to an effect as startling as one of the painter’s own canvasses – you wouldn’t call it cheerful, but it will leave a lasting impression. The film takes you on a tour of Edvard Munch’s (Geir Westby) personal life – from his childhood through to maturity – whilst offering a similarly detailed look at the wider world in which he lived.
Munch was born in a Norway rife with the hypocrisies of its day: accommodating child labour and state-sanctioned prostitution which flew in the face of the Protestant Christian values that the middle classes claimed to uphold. This gave rise to a bohemian counter-culture which suited the saturnine disposition of the anxious young artist – uncertain about the world around him and its preconditions. He travelled Europe to study and paint, meeting many avant-garde thinkers and writers and the film provides a good survey of painting across the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.
Watkins’ films also offers a painter’s-eye view into some of Munch’s most significant paintings, becoming near- academic at times in its detail. It is an extensive filmic study, but that achievement is also an arguable weakness: with a running time of 220 minutes it can prove arduous and the subject matter is so stuffed with gloom that it could easily fill an entire Nordic television series twice over. Throughout, Munch steals glances directly into the camera, gazing at us furtively and sometimes meaningfully as if haunted – mutely pleading in a film where his character seldom speaks. It’s strong stuff, sympathetic and striking.