Bob Zemeckis is too straight to make a movie about a homophobic hate crime.
Even if the main character of this joint is not a queer man, and a very insistent hetero at that, the subject matter remains beyond his grasp. Mark Hogancamp (here played by Steve Carell) is an artist who was violently beaten by a gang of men after revealing to them in a bar that he collects and wears women’s shoes. The film is never comfortable with the image — not that of the attack, which is flashed back to regularly, but of a man enjoying women’s fashion. We see it in how the camera dramatically pans to to reveal feet, or up to reveal a masculine body. It is a twist, a shocking inversion, we are invited to hold the impossibility of a person so dramatically divided.
This is a film of division though. The attack upon our lead has left him devoid of all memories predating the event and severely deteriorated motor skills. Unable to continue drawing, he creates a miniature WWII village and populates it with dolls representing the people in his life. He photographs them living their lives, the exploits of a small resistance in Nazi occupied Belgium. Half the film concerns the goings on of the artist: his struggle to recover, the upcoming sentencing of his attackers, the simultaneously upcoming first public exhibition of his work.
The other half is the shit that happens in the imagined village. It’s an understandable choice, outside of the conceit there’s not too much compelling reason for the story to be told. However it is never elevated above that level, you’d think that it’s inclusion could possibly be an interesting counterpoint to the main story, or a possibility to critique the obvious problematic undertones of the work. It doesn’t. Even worse, Zemeckis made the decision to return to the style of motion capture animation that he employed to create his run of nightmares through the early 2000s.
While the technology has mercifully improved, the director’s aesthetic tenancies obviously have not. The animated segments of this film look disconcertingly gross. The weird plastic sheen layered over every surface is clearly intentional, yet still equally offputting as it was the past three times. There’s just this instinctual discomfort I had to looking at these images that stopped me from ever sinking into them. Moreover we gotta talk about the way the fiction reckons with the world that this man has created.
It’s like gently misogynistic. The man has constructed this world in which he is allowed to define what masculinity and femininity is and it’s a tortured one. Women allowed to live there are without exception alluringly dressed, however are killed if their sexuality becomes in any way threatening to the artist’s self insert. The fact that these people are textually based on the women who surround him gives it a disconcerting air of possession, control. Which can, like so much art made by men who secretly harbour shitty viewpoints, be written off by the fact that these are strong women. Liberated. They shoot Nazis and save the hero, how dare that be criticised?
This can add interesting texture to the work of a real life artist, wherein the work exists alongside its critique. However, in its desperation to make this some uplifting, inspirational talk of a man overcoming the odds — the joint don’t really got no way to reckon with it. Outside one of the friends noting that her stand in has ended up topless (again) in that wry matriarchal way that exists to ease our discomfort at the antics of a naughty boy.
Really the friends get abysmally short shrift throughout this entire joint, as though it mistakes reminding you that they’re human for actually being humanising. Deadass, Janelle Monáe appears in human form for less than a minute. Gwendolyn Christie has a single scene, Eiza González has three. All are fairly uncomfy stereotypes and utterly superfluous to the driving thrust of the plot.
It mainly revolves around a doll who has no real life equivalent. We are told she is, no joke, an evil Belgian witch obsessed with Hogancamp, who resurrects the Nazis killed in their conquests, who wants to travel with him into the future where she can possess him forever. It’s an element of the fantastic which, even within the context of this unfocused work feels outlandish. She represents the rather vague concept of addiction, specifically to the curiously unspecified pills that our hero’s doctor prescribes him.
There are few genres of film that I like less than the ‘don’t take your meds’ movie. I’ve a feeling that the folks who write them don’t got nothing prescribed, or at least I hope it. It is framed as equal an act of heroism as his gracious reaction to learning that a woman he’s a crush on doesn’t like him back — having the fantasy version of her immediately, grievously, wounded in a Nazi attack. Oh, but the fictional version of him does his best to play the hero, it’s all okay.
You get the sense that the film’s perspective may be somewhat skewed. I think this was a Zemeckis passion project. I think he feels an affinity for an artist who has created this intricate little world over which he has complete authorship. I think it’s no conincidence that he chooses to depict their reality using the same techniques that he had been so roundly criticised for previously. I think that the time machine bearing a striking resemblance to the Back to the Future DeLorean is a choice with very deliberate intent.
He has been a man whose entire career has been defined by his disregard for the technical limitations of film when it comes to realising his visions. He restates firmly here his irrepressible resolve to continue; no matter what the reactions of his detractors he will keep going. Such is the strength of his convictions.
It’s a fine statement for an artist to make, it’s just entirely the wrong context to place it in. This is a story incited by an act of homophobic violence. Bob, you are not facing that level of persecution — your detractors aren’t literal neo-Nazis.
Welcome to Marwen is currently screening in UK cinemas.