The Reeler


October 8, 2007


Gorgeous black-and-white visuals are the real star of unhappy rocker's biopic

A biopic doesn’t have to dabble in abstract formalism to mine for the essence of its subject, but that seems like the preferred route. Encapsulating the highlights of a career or personality into the constraints of single viewing experience presents the daunting task of paring down, or at least condensing, lengthier events through the art of suggestion. The multilayered structure of I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s upcoming interpretive ode to Bob Dylan, speaks to the musician’s tenuous convictions and capricious identity. Call it outlandish or needlessly trippy if you must, but Haynes’s technique has a direct relationship with the film’s finger-picking protagonist, so that the conceptual flourishes keep Dylan in the foreground rather than buried in extraneous artiness.

Such is not the case with the utterly gorgeous, completely distracting black-and-white photography in Control, Anton Corbijn’s take on the life and premature death of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis (Sam Riley). Dealing with the story of a man’s rapid descent into utter psychological disarray, Corbijn uses his images both as a means of evoking the gritty rock culture of late 1970s-era UK and the inescapably bleak outlook of his ill-fated lead. At times, the device works quite effectively -- but even the smallest actions and events are imbued with eye-catching, masterfully executed shots, leading to an overwhelmingly dreary tone that hinders the movie’s forward motion. The plot centers on Curtis’s romantic confusion and decaying professional drive, but the black and white visuals are the real star of the show.

This is Corbijn’s first feature-length film, following a successful career as a photographer and music video director, and it’s possible that his background in art forms that practically demand stylization guided the photographic strategy. On a technical level, the film is a fantastic accomplishment -- possibly one of the prettiest movies released this year -- but the script hardly justifies the extreme panache. Which is unfortunate, because on its own merits, it’s an immersive, tightly written story.

Corbijn tracks Curtis’s experiences with swift pacing that keeps the singer looking both fragile and confused. An early scene finds him proposing to his teenage sweetheart (Samantha Morton) in an open field, followed by a quick cut to the newlyweds riding off from the ceremony, while a distracted look on Riley’s face tells us that the character found the transition as shockingly immediate as we did. The actor’s impressive ability to embody Curtis’s uneasy persona becomes especially obvious in the performance sequences, a series of concert scenes that take place with a handful of shots and cuts marked by an overwhelmingly stark realism. Rather than giving these moments an aura of uplift, as musician narratives tend to do, Corbijn uses them as a way to map Curtis’s sense of disarray. As we repeatedly witness the singer’s awkwardly jerky, semi-skanking stage maneuvers, the movements start looking less like dancing than drowning.

Indeed, Curtis’s undoing might have stemmed from his own ambition. “The past is now part of my future,” the character says in an introductory voiceover, but “the present is well out of hand.” It’s the closest the movie comes to exploring the character’s awareness of his nascent legacy, driving home the idea that posthumous recognition is not such a comforting thought when you’re still alive.

Beyond its luscious gray tones, Control feels very conventional. Viewers learn how Joy Division formed during trips to local shows where the likes of David Bowie inspired young musicians to experiment with their own grungy rhythms. The group doesn’t have any initial problems -- the music sounds great and the fan base develops fairly quickly. If Corbijn had something to say beyond the obvious -- that Curtis was one unhappy rocker -- the ideas are lost in a sea of pretty pictures.

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Comments (1)

This is a very original and clear review it provides contexrt for a very difficult to understand film

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