EDVARD MUNCH is an ambitious, often heavy-going effort to transcend traditional artist biographies with a cinematic equivalent of the artist's paintings. It fails, but on the way succeeds in so many other ways that the failure almost doesn't matter.
In interviews, director Peter Watkins has been explicit about his total identification with Munch, how in the obsessive effort to portray the artist's life on screen, he effectively was revealing his own neuroses and experiences. People might be put off by the results. Watkins gives the film the look of a fictional biography. He then films events as if he were a documentary filmmaker present at the time. So there is a lot of loose, hand-held camera; there are "interviews" with actors (many of whom improvised or wrote their responses) speaking in character; and Watkins himself frequently intrudes with narration that helps us understand both Munch's significance in the history of art and how his times influenced his work. The voice-over also tells us what Munch feels and experiences, much as the narrator of a novel pretends to know what his protagonist is thinking at any given moment.
It is this effort to reveal the relationship between the artist's turmoil and his work that motivates the kaleidoscopic editing style, jumping from one event in the "present," to one in the past, sideways to another, back to something else we've already seen, then out again. Sometimes these edits are built on visual associations; often Watkins relies on the soundtrack to glue them together. It is here that the film's ambitions start to unravel. Other filmmakers who have used such technique (Eisenstein, Resnais, Godard and Roeg, for example) let their cuts ebb and flow over time. Watkins simply cuts, constantly, repeatedly, without much variation in speed or rhythm. Either through a lack of confidence or talent, the images fail to compel on their own, to persuade that there is any relationship between shots not forced by the editor's heavy hand. After nearly three hours, the barrage is exhausting.
But also exhaustive. Most artist biographies on film are an embarrassment. EDVARD MUNCH is one of the very few to give us a sense of both the man and his work. You do not have to be particularly interested in Munch to find the film's experiments fascinating, even in their failure. Just be prepared to get up to stretch every once in a while.