Welcome to Marwen movie review: toying with our sympathy

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Welcome to Marwen yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

The plastic terror of The Polar Express melded with the kooky charm of Forrest Gump is a bad, sometimes outright icky, way to tell a tale of trauma and recovery, and does a disservice to Steve Carell’s sensitive performance.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Steve Carell
I’m “biast” (con): hot and cold on Robert Zemeckis
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

I haven’t seen the 2010 documentary Marwencol, and now I have to, because I feel like it surely must do a better job of telling the true story of artist Mark Hogancamp than Welcome to Marwen does. The problem isn’t that deeply internal, intensely psychological reality has been fictionalized in a visual medium, per se, though that was always going to be a difficult task. It’s the way that it has been fictionalized. It’s been… Zemeckis-ized. This is directed by Robert Zemeckis (Allied, The Walk), after all, and cowritten by him and Caroline Thompson (Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas). But he’s at his most Zemeckis-y, as if he imagined, for some reason, that the plastic terror of The Polar Express melded with the kooky charm of Forrest Gump would somehow work to tell a tale of trauma and recovery, of the power of imagination to help and to heal. It doesn’t.

The horror that Hogancamp experienced and the ways he found to cope with it might have been better served with the kind of restraint that Zemeckis showed with his Contact — a small, beautiful story about the hugeness of the universe — or in Cast Away, which rendered an extreme of human experience and survival with exquisite humor and pathos. You see, Hogancamp (here portrayed by Steve Carell: Beautiful Boy, Battle of the Sexes) barely survived a sickening beating by five especially vicious attackers, and he was left with terrible losses, in his memory and in his physical capabilities. He could no longer draw, so as part of his recovery, as a sort of self-devised art therapy, he constructed in his yard a scale-model WWII-era Belgian town, which he dubbed Marwen, and began photographing its inhabitants — dolls, GI Joe and Barbie types — in an ongoing story about, well, violence and trauma and rescue and magic and endurance.

Welcome to Marwen Steve Carell
“Dude, if I have to ask you one more time to sit still…”

You can see at the real Mark Hogancamp’s web site about his project that the dolls are just… dolls. They have generic doll faces. They are, however, analogs for people in Hogancamp’s life, including his attackers (they’re the Nazis)… and the way Zemeckis has chosen to represent that is to give the dolls the actual visages of his cast: Hogancamp’s stand-in looks like Carell; that of a woman Hogancamp met at rehab who inspired him looks like Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures, Moonlight); the surrogate for his home carer looks like Gwendoline Christie (The Darkest Minds, Star Wars: The Last Jedi); other dolls look exactly like extruded-plastic versions of Hogancamp’s new neighbor (Leslie Mann: Blockers, How to Be Single); a colleague (Eiza González: Baby Driver, Jem and the Holograms) at the restaurant where he works; and an employee (Merritt Wever: Birdman, Righteous Kill) at the hobby shop where he buys his dolls and small-scale accessories. (One doll, a 3,000-year-old witch who torments Marwen, is “played” by Diane Kruger [Fathers & Daughters, Disorder]. Hogancamp says he doesn’t know where this character comes from.) And while the real Hogancamp’s stories exist in concrete form only as still photos, Zemeckis has chosen to animate them.

Welcome to Marwen is too often uncomfortably like peering in on daydreams that should have remained private.

Perhaps this seemed like a good way to bring to life the fantasy that allows Hogancamp control over the uncontrollable, some measure of mastery over horrors too acute to confront in any other way. But what it means is that half of Welcome to Marwen — all the CGI-animated bits — are fantasies that have no resonance for us, even if we can clearly appreciate, in a purely intellectual way, their appeal for Hogancamp. But for us they are like looking at someone else’s very personal porn, often almost literally: the dolls are absurd delusions of sexiness and dominance, scantily clad and constantly rescuing the Hogancamp doll, which is much more naturalistic looking, at least compared to the women. It’s a bit like a wide-awake Wizard of Oz — “you were there, and you” — but without much of a narrative in the dreamlike sections. The fantasy bits don’t speak to us at all; they don’t speak to anyone but Hogancamp. They don’t connect to larger notions of the power of story. They are too uncomfortably like peering in on daydreams that should have remained private.

Ironically, there’s an element of Hogancamp’s story that could have been depicted in a salacious way: he has a thing for women’s shoes, the more feminine, the better; stilettos seem to hold a particular fascination for him. (A mention of the fact that he sometimes likes to wear women’s shoes seems to be what prompted his attackers to target him.) Zemeckis treats this in a completely straightforward, totally casual way, like the not-at-all-unusual thing it is. Which is great. Instead, the animated sequences are where the fetishizing is happening: dolls that look like real women yet also like impossibly unrealistic playthings, dressed in fishnet stockings and other attire less than practical for a war zone, and sometimes exposing their plastic breasts. (One doll is an analog for Hogancamp’s favorite actress… who is a porn star. Zemeckis cast his wife, Leslie, in this role, which adds another layer of ick.)

Welcome to Marwen sexy dolls
Toy Story was never this va-va-voom…

I’m sure this is all offered to us with the best of intentions… but it is by turns forced, overenunciated, absurdly on the nose, and sometimes is so lost in the fantasy world that it forgets to clue us in to what’s really going on with Hogancamp. Something about an addiction to unidentified pills, for instance, suddenly turns up in the last few minutes of the movie, and we have no idea what that’s about: Hogancamp hadn’t seemed to be suffering in that sense.

Carell’s performance ends up being pretty much the only reason to see Welcome to Marwen. There’s a delicate sensitivity to how he shows us the hangover Hogancamp is left with after his trauma, one that is undoubtedly masculine in shape, in how it’s about being unable to directly deal with his emotions, and in the horny-straight-guy expression it takes. His tenderness with himself, inarticulate though it may be, becomes a sharp contrast to the cruelty he endured at the hands of other men. It’s too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t know how to support him in that.

Documentary Marwencol is available on a new Special Edition DVD in Region 1 [Amazon US] and also on iTunes [iTunes US] [iTunes UK]. It is also available to stream in the US on Kanopy.

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