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December 20, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | December 20, 2007 |

Like the typical high school heterodox, I listened to my fair share of angsty music in my teenage years. Working backwards from Radiohead and Manic Street Preachers to ’80s sad-sack juggernauts The Soft Boys, The Fall, The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, and God knows what else, I listened to a lot of paeans to ultra-seriousness, but when I finally stumbled onto the post-punk bible of Joy Division and Ian Curtis’s haunted warble, I knew I had found someone who really meant what he was saying.

Control, directed by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, is the long-awaited biopic of the tortured singer and icon, whose onstage mania mimed the similarly legendary Sid Barrett and whose premature suicide set the stage for Richey James and Kurt Cobain after. It’s a film that seems made for fans already steeped in the Curtis mythos, those who have an extant familiarity with those iconic talking points in his life — the fateful Sex Pistols show, the confrontation with Tony Wilson, the apocryphal blood-contract, the onset of epilepsy, the onstage fits, the affair with Annik HonorĂ©, the Derby riot, and then that harrowing morning. Many of these events were similarly chronicled in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People with something approaching reverence. But unlike Winterbottom’s film, it’s hard to know how those with no inbound appreciation for the Madchester/Factory story will react. Corbijn’s film is almost flawless aesthetically, but his narrative doesn’t delve beyond face value, possibly because he knows what his real audience will want to see; he honors their expectations, but Control loses some of its edge when he doesn’t delve deeply enough.

Despite his career as a music video director, it’s Corbijn’s photographer-eye that steals the show from the admirable performances and plain exposition. I counted no more than three of four times when the camera actually moved; almost every single frame is a static shot meant to evoke classical photography in achingly beautiful monochrome. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine Joy Division inhabiting a world of color; the cinematography of Control couldn’t be more perfect in complimenting the band’s bleak, droning music.

Beginning in the soporific small town of Macclesfield, the film begins its somewhat enigmatic portrayal of Curtis (Sam Riley). Like most adolescents, he feels bored and isolated from the dreary world around him, finding a glimmer of recognition in the music of David Bowie. He’s quietly discontented, but allows the trajectory of his life take him into marriage with a sweet girl, Deborah (Samantha Morton), at the age of 19. When Curtis fatefully stumbles across Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook and starts a band, he finally begins to fulfill some anomalous ambition in his life, but the success he finds in self-actualizing his artistic abilities drives him away from his wife and newborn baby, who begin to feel like an anchor into the real world and a reminder of his personal failures. Perhaps because he married too early, or simply because his newfound life is pulling him away from practical responsibilities, Curtis is driven into the arms of a wantable stranger to whom he admits his marriage was a mistake. But, of course, the love he thinks he feels for this mistress isn’t the simple answer to his problems he hopes for. Love will tear him apart, and all that.

Curtis is, as portrayed by the film, the kind of tortured soul who makes for a perfect icon to disaffected youth, perfectly manifested physically in his epilepsy, but as a real person who fails so thoroughly as a husband and father, it’s hard not to condemn his solipsism. Corbijn and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh had the disadvantage of working from a thoroughly biased source - Deborah Curtis’s (who produced this film) memoir, Touching from a Distance, which teeters between understandable resentment toward Ian’s enigma and hagiography. Corbijn, to his credit, tries to toe the line between judging Curtis and venerating him; he lets us do either as we please, but the resultant neutrality lacks a real sense of immediacy.

The Ian Curtis of Control is a ghostly, detached riddle, which is fair — no one will likely understand just what made him so compelling unless they put Unknown Pleasures or Closer on the record player and listen to those self-hating lyrics. But in merely presenting Curtis without an attempt at understanding, Corbijn loses something to the myth, and the narrative arc which leads Curtis to stardom and then, one fateful morning after watching Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, to swing from his kitchen ceiling, feels like an afterthought. Still, as an accompaniment to Joy Division’s music, Control is impeccable, featuring some of the most beautiful chiaroscuro photography of the year. For fans, this accompaniment is like a love letter; for everyone else, it’s probably just another riddle.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and still listens to Joy Division, though he never wore eyeliner or anything too conspicuous.

Atrocity Exhibition

Control / Phillip Stephens

Film | December 20, 2007 |

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