PRINT March 2006


Watkins’s Edvard Munch

PETER WATKINS AND Edvard Munch: two singular, intractable, often misunderstood artistic personalities, each enjoying a revival and both bound together by Watkins’s personality-melding biopic. Newly released on DVD to coincide with Munch’s current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Edvard Munch (1973) is an essay with actors that has the form and tropes of a documentary film: direct address, contrapuntal voice-over, casual framing, vérité zooms. Nearly three hours in length, the movie is densely edited and largely achronological. The dramatic scenes are fragmentary—often a succession of close-ups—but not oblique. In no sense esoteric and always class-conscious, Watkins takes pains to establish the Norwegian artist’s miserable, death-haunted childhood, the social milieu into which he was born, and the bohemian circle to which he gravitated—with particular attention to issues of sexual freedom. Using Munch’s journals to establish an internal monologue, Watkins jumps back and forth in time, the flashbacks madly proliferating as his movie ends.

Watkins has absolute faith in Munch’s artistic centrality. With irksome authority he declares the artist’s smudged, scraped, scored, and savaged breakthrough of 1885–86, The Sick Child, to be the “first
Expressionist painting in the history of art.” In a telling bit of counterpoint, however, the adult Munch is played by a near-expressionless actor (Geir Westby). Like everyone else in the large cast, he is a nonprofessional. The movie, Watkins has said, was made by the Norwegian public—which is to say, the descendants of those who rejected Munch’s art in the 1880s.

The first half of the movie concerns Munch’s early years; the second half follows the artist to Paris and Berlin in the 1890s. Still haunted by childhood traumas and suffering the effects of an unhappy love affair, Munch drinks heavily and works obsessively—and also overworks, using oil, pencil, and pastel together on the same canvas. He has his first exhibitions and becomes infamous overnight, attacked for the scandal of his “anarchic smears.”

The life may be Munch’s, but the vision belongs to Watkins. Although Munch was as much imagemaker as painter—at least during the 1890s, when he produced that great icon of panic The Scream, 1893—Watkins is significantly less interested in Munch’s subject matter than in the conditions of the artist’s existence and the frenzy of his technique. (The Scream’s lysergic, flowing landscape is too static for him.) There’s no confusing Edvard Munch with anything other than a motion picture. One might term Watkins’s montage free-associative were it not so musical. It’s as concerned with repetition and variation as Munch himself—and as layered in its way as The Sick Child.

Citing the negative response to his early films The War Game (1965) and Privilege (1966), Watkins has stressed a personal identification with Munch. He also credits the painter with a kindred form of direct address. Among other things, then, Edvard Munch is about the development of a style. It was after this hypnotic, frantic portrait of the artist that Watkins moved from movies that represented a social scenario to movies that sought to construct a social scenario. Edvard Munch opened the door for those Watkins epics that challenged viewers to change their lives—and, by requiring months and even years of collective endeavor, actually compelled their participants to do so.

J. Hoberman is senior film critic at the Village Voice.