An artist is a person driven by the need to express their inner feelings in the medium of their expertise, the film Edvard Munch proposes. In doing so, the titular artist would change the medium of painting itself, endure prolonged disparagement at the hands of an uncomprehending public, but persevere and eventually achieve his due recognition… that’s the story the film covers, but it sinks deeper into its subject’s life than the glaze of easy pathos which would make him a heroic Howard Roark-like figure of refusal to compromise; Munch is far less romantic than that, driven to produce his art less out of a carefully reasoned ideal than an urgent need to portray his emotional reality—and in doing so, alleviate some of its pressures upon him.
The causes of his distress are multifold, stemming from various problems within his family home, childhood illnesses, and the society outside. A truthful depiction of how each of these factors influences the other is complex by necessity, and the film, in its honest and careful depiction of Munch’s life, steps outside its immediate subject so we may understand him better.
The location is Kristiania, Norway, within the late 1800’s. Its society, as we come to know it, seems grounded within daily struggles: there are bars and pool halls, and religion; both help residents cope with the spread of tuberculosis. It is a time of stiff collars and suits; of neatly combed beards and casual acceptance of child labor, of oppression of women both by severely unequal pay rates and a strictly enforced moral code. In this kind of atmosphere a few bohemian radicals are inevitable; the rest live in varying degrees of cramped rigidity.
It seems almost inevitable that Munch’s canvases of a worn, bare feeling—formative steps into the style of expressionism, which would be a major step in the progression of art—would earn harsh reactions from a viewing public accustomed to visual subjects presented in calmer, softer manners of realism. The film traces the effects within Munch’s art and personal life without invoking an ounce of melodrama from the situation; that willingness to present and even explore the facts without playing the audience is part of what makes it so engaging.
Another aspect of the film steps past its role as art historian and narrator; stable continuity often gives way to collages of reaction shots, seeming on-the-street cinema verite, and interview sessions with people of the time. There is no real enforcement of the fourth wall, but the shots that end with Munch glancing at the camera gently enforce the viewer’s experience of the film as a genuine documentary; there isn’t much on-screen to betray its status as a reenactment.
That the many extra film devices used to tell its story end up strengthening its sense of reality may seem like a paradox, but there are directors who know exactly how to handle a larger selection from the potential palate of tricks. The painter of The Scream, who expressed so much through his own unusual means, deserves no less.