Life

September 12, 2015
Dane DeHaan & Robert Pattinson in 'Life' (2015)
Dane DeHaan & Robert Pattinson in 'Life' (2015)

Cinematic highlight of the week was Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President, which opened the Persian International Film Festival in Sydney. Despite its grand title and the massive turn-out on opening night, the Festival only lasts for four days, which makes it impossible to review. This is partly because it is still early days for this event, and partly due to the perennial difficulties of making movies in Iran.

The President, which was largely shot in Georgia, is a reminder of the exceptional quality of Iranian cinema. It tells the story of a dictator in a nameless eastern European country, on the run during a revolution. His companion is his small grandson, who acts as a satirical echo of the general’s former pretentions. Makhmalbaf has given us a film of poignant details and slow-building tension that left audiences gasping. Let’s hope it gets an Australian release.

The President is an allegory that deals with no place in particular, but is relevant to every country that has lived under tyranny. Anton Corbijn’s Life is a bio-pic that examines a few weeks in the life of James Dean (1931-55) – a screen legend on the strength of three films and an early death. This ‘true life’ story leaves one wondering about Dean’s personality. If he was really as moody and withdrawn as Dane DeHaan’s portrayal, he was a most unlikely Hollywood superstar.

Dean was Peter Pan in a leather jacket – destined to never grow old. Thanks to his role as Jim Stark in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), he became an iconic figure for generations of misunderstood teenagers. He was dangerously sexy, to both women and men, and seems to have been actively bisexual.

Not much of this comes through in Life, which depicts Dean as a brooding introvert who says he wants to be famous, while forever fleeing from publicity engagements. He wants to do “good acting”, but has no patience with the way the studio markets its stars. His conversation is one long flirtation. An attitude of self-conscious ennui combines the demeanour of a surly adolescent with the studied cool of a would-be intellectual.

Dehaan has a full set of mannerisms, although the real Dean had a much sharper, angular look. Instead of projecting ‘intensity’, he acts as if he’s permanently stoned.

The movie follows photographer, Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), who is trying to shoot a feature on Dean for Life magazine. This proves difficult, as his subject seems incapable of focusing on any task or appointment. Dean lives in his own head, constantly wavering between playing a role and rejecting the artifice of his profession.

Anton Corbijn knows a few things about photographing the stars, as this was his job for many years until he directed the movie, Control (2007), about Ian Curtis of Joy Division. That debut was more assured than this impressionistic effort, scripted by Australian Luke Davies, a writer who favours delineation of character over narrative. It is a beautifully shot movie, but seems to roll past in slow motion.

Part of the problem lies with Pattinson, an actor with an emotional range that makes David Bowie look versatile. I’ve watched this former teen idol in half a dozen films over the past few years, and am still awaiting a convincing performance.

DeHaan is much better as Dean because he has created a complete persona. Whether it’s accurate or not is of less import. Ben Kingsley verges on caricature as larger-than-life studio boss, Jack Warner; while Joel Edgerton plays it straight as legendary photo editor, John Morris.

Pattinson’s Stock is a lonely man, estranged from his wife and child. He is looking for a subject that will help establish his reputation, and his instincts tell him Dean provides that opportunity. Their relationship has a cat and mouse aspect as Dean leads Stock through the bars of Bohemian New York, but gives him little to photograph.

On the verge of giving up the project he travels with Dean to the family farm in Indiana. This allows him to discover Jimmy the farm boy, which makes for a neat contrast with Jimmy the sullen young star. It’s the element of authenticity he needs, although it’s difficult to say whether Stock discovered or fabricated this desirable image.

He has spied something extraordinary behind Dean’s meandering habits and speech. The success of this film depends on whether the viewer is able to glimpse those same qualities. Dean’s mythologisation had hardly begun, but already there was no clear line between reality and fantasy, art and life.

Life
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Written by Luke Davies
Starring Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Ben Kingsley, Joel Edgerton. Alessandra Mastronardi, Kristen Hagen, Kelly McCreary
Canada/Germany/Australia/USA, rated MA 15+,
111 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12th September, 2015.