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Edvard Munch (1974. 3 hrs, 41 min, 08 sec) is a television biographical drama film, directed and written by Peter Watkins, who had previously directed The War Games (1965), the two films sharing a pseudo-documentary approach to their subject matter. The film is in Norwegian, with an English narration and subtitles.
Munch was a Norwegian expressionist painter, probably best known for his painting ‘The Scream’. The film covers a period between 1884 and 1894, although the film does flash back to both the death of his mother and sister as well as his own brush with the grim reaper. In this way Watkins is able to connect prior psychological traumas with the internal influences on the adult Munch.
There is great contrast in the film with many of the indoor scenes deliberately over granulated, probably to mimic Munch’s habit of being more interested in shade and light and less so in form. The early painting of his sister consists almost entirely of her face and hands, her body being hidden, dressed in black against a black background. The outdoor scenes are more fully defined as if to differentiate it from the internal scenes many of which contain moral or philosophical discourse, a possible visual representation of Munch’s own thought processes and his eternal melancholy, which he continued to express in his art.
The narration acts, much as it did in The War Game to unsettle the audience by expressing ideas and events as if they all had equal value. This creates an unsettling feeling as if we are surreptitiously creating a voyeuristic space with which to peek into the private lives of others. The pseudo-documentary goes further, not only does the narration tell you what is happening with the character, but they are also questioned onscreen by an unseen interviewer, breaking the forth wall.
If all this sounds like a slow film, you would not be far from the mark, not only is the central narrative languid, but Watkin also has the camera settle on Munch’s pictures, some of which refer to particular characters like his sister, while others are illustrative of Munch’s often inner torment. In this way the film also examines the transformational nature of Munch’s work from his earlier self-portraits to the extreme expressionist piece like ‘The Scream’. In all of this the film attempts to show how, although tragic, Munch led an honest life, as defined by his environment, a life which was ahead of its time.
The piece certainly rates as an important piece of television history, much in the same way that most of Watkins's output does. It’s not an easy watch and as an audience you need to give the piece a little time to click into place. At that point regardless of your impression of Munch or his paintings you’ll be pulled into the world created by Watkins.
The print is as the director intended, including the heavy grain in the indoor scenes. You have the choice to watch the whole thing in one long go or split into two segments, likewise you can watch with or without subtitles. The Blu-ray contains no extras.
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