Monday, October 29, 2007

Don't Walk Away

For the first time in a very long time, I watched a film at a theatre. While multiplexes do exist in good quantity here in Paris, we ended up in a narrow rectangle, underground, alongside a cement wall marked with the names of luminary directors. No frills, certainly no concessions' stand, though our seats were still plush and red as they were probably initially intended. We couldn't have picked a more appropriate film or venue given the dreary fall weather and the looming promise of wintertime. Control generated much hype over the year after its debut during the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes earlier this May, and the hype was well worth it. Shot by a first-time director and cinematographer, acted and performed by mostly unknown actors (save for the heartbreaking Samantha Morton), it was extraordinary to see how closely the film mirrored the music: a melancholic malaise that bars the emotional depth of Joy Division's cool post-punk basslines and Ian Curtis' baritone delivery.

For this isn't simply a film about a band, nor your average biopic. There's no emollient finale to absolve viewers from the pitiless surroundings projected in from of them for nearly two hours. The "kitchen-sink" style of realism is not quite accurate a description for the style, as Anton Corbijn's vision is far dreamier in his approach to the beauty of circa 1970s post-industrial Manchester, England. The grand myth of the band includes Corbijn's iconic photography of the time, breaking the rules of glamour and choosing to view them from behind. Legend states that the young Dutchman left the Netherlands because of Joy Division's music. The film's source material, a book written by Curtis' widow Deborah, ironically adds another level of distance as it, too, attempts to make sense of Curtis' incredible irretrievable actions, travails, and tragic ending. The film is also the story of the impetuous beginnings of Joy Division, with their repeat bedroom listening sessions of Velvet Underground, David Bowie, and the Sex Pistols emblazoned in memory. Indeed, what else can one do but revel in the music on a dull grey afternoon?

Perhaps I've a tendency to romanticize the Byronic outsider like the rest of the masses. Curtis was a deeply conflicted individual, and certainly, the bizarre concoction of drugs prescribed to treat a recently diagnosed condition of epilepsy didn't help his predisposed tendency for depression. Sam Riley's gaunt, lanky frame and moonish eyes are worked to their best advantage. Riley's performance as Curtis nearly outdoes the original as he spasms, out of control so to speak, on stage, dancing without any particular rhythm and against the grain of his precise voice. Desperately seeking and seeking without filter, Control doesn't end with the malaise of dank hallways and grim, beer-soaked nights alone. Instead, it includes the fraying of other lives, including Curtis' wife, lover, and friends, as they contend with the very real consequences of a man unable to discern his desires.

Curiously, like the music that still lives on, the film doesn't adequately address the "why" we would all like to know. I initially thought that "why" didn't need to be addressed, but a day later, I still wind up empty when thinking "why" and for a fan, that will never be answered. It's easy to say that those who don't know depression firsthand will never understand that there is no easy "why," but given the myths surrounding Joy Division, it's an oversight to not protray how the rapid-fire mood swings, the consistent indecision, the mounting anxiety and its concomitant irritability came about. From one bedroom to another, Curtis shuttled back further into his mind, letting his personal demons conquer him. As someone who's lived with depression, as well as dealt with others who are depressed, I wanted to call out and say don't walk away.

** Grande Enchilada also writes compellingly about the incomplete portrayal of Curtis here.

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