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IFFR 2023 Limelight

Review: Munch


- Four films in one, with four different perspectives on the world-famous Norwegian painter, make up Henrik M Dahlsbakken’s original but uneven new feature

Review: Munch
Thea Lambrechts Vaulen and Alfred Ekker Strande in Munch

It is definitely no easy task to make a film about a complex artist and man such as Edvard Munch (1863-1944). In his latest feature, Henrik M Dahlsbakken doesn’t take the most obvious path, and rightly so. The Norwegian painter was a multi-faceted character, whose troubled existence serves as the perfect launchpad to dive into a wider discourse revolving around the nature of art, death and love.

In Munch [+see also:
interview: Henrik M Dahlsbakken
film profile
, which opened this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam and was showcased in the gathering’s Limelight section, the director chooses to make four films in one. Four actors play the title role – namely, Alfred Ekker Strande, Mattis Herman Nyquist, Ola G Furuseth and Anne Krigsvoll. Their scenes don’t follow any precise chronological order, but they rather seem to have been assembled on the basis of thematic connections. As such, there’s no pretence of accuracy or linearity.

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Ekker Strande plays a young, tormented (but also very passionate) Munch in his early twenties. While we may already sense – and ultimately see – the demons that will accompany the artist for the rest of his life, there are also faint coming-of-age, romantic vibes, especially in the scenes focusing on his first love, a married woman called Milly Thaulow (Thea Lambrechts Vaulen).

An older Munch is later played by Nyquist. Here, the purpose of Dahlsbakken’s direction gets clearer and clearer. From the Norwegian countryside in the 19th century, we are thrown into the Berlin of the 2020s. Munch’s first exhibition in Berlin is rejected, and the painter – who now looks like one of the thousands of hipsters wandering around Kreuzberg – seems to inevitably enter a downward spiral. This part is certainly the most original, and gifts the viewer with two of the picture’s most striking scenes. In the first one, Munch is cycling at dusk somewhere outside of Dublin, and the sky appears in the style of his paintings. In the other scene, he confronts an old stranger he met at a rave, who is willing to give him “a reality check” and suggests that he give up on his artistic aspirations. Their exchange is beautifully written, and says much about what underpins art and creative impulses.

“Art grows out of joy and sorrow. Mostly sorrow,” Faruseth, who plays the painter in his forties and further develops the aforementioned themes, will later mumble. Here, the aesthetics and the tone of the movie change once again. Mostly shot in black and white with a 4:3 ratio, these psychodrama-like sequences see Munch painfully coming to terms with himself and his past, while being treated by a therapist (Jesper Christensen) in a nerve clinic. With this particular style and setting, the relationship between insanity and artistic creation is also further explored.

Despite her visible efforts, veteran Anne Krigsvoll’s performance is the least convincing. She breathes life into Munch in hisfinal days, amidst the Nazi occupation of Norway. While the actress manages, at least to some extent, to embody Munch’s free spirit and attitude, the viewer may get distracted too easily by the flawed make-up and her voice, which still sounds like that of a lady her age. One may wonder why – since there is no willingness to take the canonical biopic path – Munch couldn’t simply have been played by Krigsvoll as an old woman. Suspension of disbelief characterises the whole viewing experience, and we are somehow forced to adhere to this attitude already during the scenes starring a young artist wandering the streets of modern-day Berlin.

The ending revolves around Munch’s duende and the immortality of artworks. However, it is rendered in an overly obvious fashion, and in this case, a little more courage would have paid off.

Munch was staged by Hamar-based outfit The Film Company (Norway). Viaplay Content Distribution is in charge of its international sales.

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