Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Who was the man behind The Scream?

Illustration for article titled Who was the man behind The Scream?

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of 12 Years A Slave, The Fifth Estate, Kill Your Darlings, and Camille Claudel 1915—all opening in the next few days—we single out some exceptional biopics.


Edvard Munch (1974)

Three and a half hours may seem like a terribly long amount of time to spend watching a biopic, especially given the genre’s usual devotion to trotting out every major event in a famous person’s life. But Edvard Munch is no ordinary biopic. Its director, radical Englishman Peter Watkins, has long been known for colliding elements of documentary and narrative film, often in search of a truth the two modes can reveal only in concert. In taking on Munch, whose most famous work is probably still The Scream, Watkins acknowledges that only through a variety of approaches and vantage points is it possible to truly see—and hence understand—a major artist.

Edvard Munch spans more than 30 years in the life of the Norwegian painter, its perspective at once objective and subjective. Though shot like a documentary, complete with scenes of its actors addressing the camera through “interviews” and stealing nervous sidelong glances at the lens, the film is edited in a kind of lyrical, nonlinear fashion, as though viewers were being tugged back and forth through time by Munch’s own recollections. More often than not, Watkins himself narrates, providing chronological context and background on certain paintings; occasionally, the actor playing Munch (Geir Westby, perfectly grave) reads excerpts from the artist’s diary. At once gazing upon its subject from a historical distance and unfolding through his blinkered eyes, the resulting film feels like the fullest portrait of the man imaginable—an encyclopedic art-history lesson folded into a character study.

By focusing extensively on an early affair Munch had with a married woman as well as on his family’s struggles with pulmonary tuberculosis, Watkins theorizes about the dramatic life occurrences that may have played an influence. (Love and death, two key themes of Munch’s work, intersect constantly throughout the movie, with the director cutting rapidly between scenes of romantic splendor and visions of disease and decay.) Some of these extrapolations may seem presumptuous—can changes in Munch’s style really be attributed to a broken heart?—but Watkins makes a convincing case by using the man’s own words, scrawled on paper and dated, to explore his headspace during the completion of pivotal canvases. And by shooting his actors in close-up, he adopts the perspective of the painter himself, emphasizing the importance of looking to Munch’s creative process. By the end, viewers may finally feel like they know the artist, inside and out. That’s worth three-and-a-half hours, isn’t it?

Availability: Edvard Munch is available on DVD, which can obtained through Netflix, and to rent or purchase (in two parts) through Amazon Instant Video.