The film starts – rather alarmingly for those who are cautious about what they can sit through, moviewise – with an introduction to the Munch family household, in late 19th-century Kristiania (now Oslo). There are brutal, sharp intercuts between tense domestic meal scenes, maternal deathbed haemorrhages, and ‘interviews’ with members of the Kristiania working class; the latter highlighting the base of poverty and exploitation that enabled Munch’s career to exist.
The interview format and intercuts continue throughout the film, the domestic tensions playing off against romantic tensions and anarchist-milieu tensions, while ‘interviews’ with near-catatonically depressed family members do little to lighten the mood.
Described by Ingmar Bergman as “a work of genius”, this 1974 film by Peter Watkins (The War Game, Culloden, Punishment Park, La Commune Paris 1871) is without doubt a multi-faceted epic. Watkins uses a trademark vérité style to undercut audience expectations with regard to the narrative, and to deconstruct the Romantic approach to artistic biography.
The film constantly refers back to childhood and romantic traumas, with the intercuts acting as a shorthand that’s powerful but eventually voids the significance of these ‘primal scenes’. At this point the narrative drama, the tale of the hardworking, tortured artist, hated by the critics, turns into something more interesting: an almost documentary style account of Munch’s technical achievements, both in painting style – the birth of Expressionism – and in the use of other artistic media.
In a perverse sense, this is where the film really takes off. Not with the familiar, strung-out tale of an afflicted genius but with our experience of his fictionalised working practices – superbly brought to life in extended sequences of painting and scraping canvas, etching copper and wood, and applying thick dark ink to make handmade prints.
These sequences bring the film full circle, as the mechanical reproduction of the etchings and prints involves Munch in a world of work that’s a truly heroic enterprise in comparison with all the lolling about in cafes, getting pissed and talking about free love while simmering in misogyny that comprise much of the rest of the runtime.
This is a director-approved, high-definition restoration of the long version of the film.
The big extra is an 80 page book including a Peter Watkins self-interview, writing by Joseph Gomez, a Munch timeline, and numerous artworks.
Review by Colin Dibben
Edvard Munch is out from Eureka! on Blu-ray on 13 June.