UK / USA, 2007
Review by Francis Cruz
Posted on 26 August 2007
Source 35mm print
A continuous stream of black smoke, rising from the chimney of a crematorium only to settle peacefully into a clear British sky, ends Control, concert photographer Anton Corbijn’s first foray into film directing. Ian Curtis, lead singer of Brit rock band Joy Division, killed himself at the age of 23 after insufferable bouts of epilepsy and other inhibiting personal problems. That final image is a fitting ending to a film about a weary soul trapped within the meager boundaries of an imperfect body.
What differentiates Control from other biopics of popular musicians such as Taylor Hackford’s Ray and James Mangold’s Walk the Line is that it’s more a portrait of an artist than that of a cultural icon or object of mass adulation. The dilemmas Ian faces in his life are far removed from those typical of a rock star’s life of drugs, lies and sex. From the start, Ian is already portrayed as a different creature, fleeing the boredom of the typical family banter in the living room or the mundane chemistry lessons in the classroom, instead preferring the seclusion of his bedroom, his collection of music, and folders of poems and lyrics, to the normal grind of the workaday world.
Normalcy catches up to him, though. After whisking away Debbie, his best friend’s girlfriend, to marriage, he takes up a job in an employment office while fronting his band at night. Even at the early stages of their marriage, an apparent sense of discontent or unhappiness can be observed in Ian. Debbie has the sole job of keeping the marriage intact; but it feels like a lost cause as Ian refuses to be grounded and the more he is anchored to marital life (as when Debbie gives birth to their daughter), the more he retaliates. The problem is certainly not a lack of affection or an inability to demonstrate emotions. It is something deeper.
The film is quite similar to Milos Forman’s Amadeus in that it dissects the conflicted life of a very young artist, one confronted with the task of continuously meeting the expectations of a discerning public and pursuing the pleasures of a normal private life. Much like the very flawed Mozart of Forman’s film, Ian is portrayed as a renegade artist whose body fails to assert his soul’s promise of talent and artistry. Every time Ian performs on stage, there’s a sense of immense struggle, a gargantuan task of releasing his artistic impulses through the confines of his inadequate body. When Ian is faced with the choice of staying with Debbie or continuing his affair with Annik, an employee of the Belgian embassy whom Ian meets in a concert, there’s a sense that his fickleness and his lack of resolution in emotional decisions relate more to his youth than a lack of moral fiber. He has been deprived of a youth common to the typical man; his life has been fast-forwarded to the point of exhaustion.
In Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, we witness a man who has come to the brink of exhaustion, executing himself as a release from the corporeal cage that can no longer hold his soul. Control takes the metaphor much deeper. All throughout the film, Ian, in exchange for the fame he deserves, unknowingly burrows himself deeper into a quagmire of human troubles, and just when he closes in on the success he dreams of reaching, he tries to inch himself out of the quicksand, but is unable to do so. In one concert, he agrees to front his band despite having been hospitalized previously. The result is a disaster, which only emphasizes Ian’s metaphoric imprisonment.
Corbijn’s conscious decision to shoot in a steely monochrome further evokes the deadening stiffness of Ian’s life, which he aptly describes as ‘drab and grey.’ The film’s visuals mimic Corbijn’s photography, wherein his subjects, mostly rock stars and musicians, are mostly shown in their normal state, absent the glitter and glamour that is usually delegated to their status. You get a sense that the rock artists he has captured in his photographs are all human beings rather than symbols of a grandiose lifestyle. Although it is common knowledge that Joy Division has garnered a wide fanbase, the film never gives the impression that Ian has achieved groundbreaking success. Corbjin’s focus is much more intimate; the film never strays too close to external issues of the band’s rising popularity, but instead delves internally.
In the film, the actors have the important duty of manifesting the centripetal force around which all the film’s elements are pulled into place. In one scene where Ian walks with Debbie, the former introducing the idea of sleeping with other people as a sidebar to the announcement that he is no longer in love with her, the concrete backdrop of rural Britain fades in order to draw the viewer’s attention to the wavering face of Debbie and the nonchalant emotional distance of Ian. Sam Riley and Samantha Morton carry the heavy burden with surprising ease: Riley possesses Ian’s brooding demeanor, morose in a way that is understandable of a character stripped of levity, and Morton balances Riley’s inactivity and supplies the film with heightened dramatic tension.
Control won the Camera d’Or in the recent Cannes Film Festival. It’s a very worthy win considering that the film partakes of a genre ridden with clichés and redundant sentimentality. The film overhauls the tired exercise in a way that provides a refreshing take, a brand new perspective on the life of a rock star. There’s a very palpable sense of humanity through the explicit imperfections we see in Ian. It is that humanity that is lacking in most films of the genre wherein the characters’ conflicts are molded to merely suit egotist or commercialist endeavors.