Edvard Munch is probably best known to contemporary audiences as the author of one of the iconic images of our era: "The Scream," that haunting painting of a soul in torment, and not just because it keeps getting stolen. As one might expect from a piece of art so visceral, Munch's life was no bed of roses, and this exemplary film by Peter Watkins provides expert examination of both the outer, chronological life of the man, as well as a fascinating, psychologically astute look at the inner workings of what was one of the most complex minds of his time.
"The Scream" has often been compared to the hallucinatory works of Van Gogh, and there are more parallels to be drawn between these tormented souls. While Munch may not have had the deeper mental instability issues of Vincent, he nonetheless showed signs of psychological trauma from an early age, perhaps related to his mother's death from consumption when he was still quite young. Watkins takes a non-linear approach to exploring these issues, as he delves not only into Munch's personal life and how it informed his art, but also the socio-economic conditions of Norway generally during the decades surrounding the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries.
The film is unusual in several respects: it takes an almost cinema verite approach to its subject, something reminiscent of the old CBS series You Are There, complete with an omniscient (and English speaking) narrator. The film veers from intimate scenes of Munch's life to related "sidebars" of other Norwegians of the time, frequently speaking directly to the camera as if being interviewed. While the film stays resolutely in its time period, costume and production design wise, it has a distinctly modern sensibility in its attempts to peel back the layers of Munch's personality to uncover the radical soul at the core of the man. While another director may have attempted to frame Munch's symbolist and expressionist tendencies in a similar filmic style, Watkins wisely chooses an absolutely realistic palette within which to work, which only highlights Munch's approach.
Geir Westby as Munch heads a cast that is uniformly excellent, especially considering that a lot of the supporting characters seem not to have had prior film experience. Westby manages to bring a great deal of nuance to a character that could otherwise have seemed aloof due to his dissociative tendencies.
Watkins' radical approach to detailing his subject is a fitting, and nicely non-ironic, comment on Munch's own near-fanatic quest to rethink modern artistic sensibilities.