Translation: "Life" review http://www.critic.de/film/life-7714/ @RPAustralia
With his fourth movie, Anton Corbijn has found himself: the story of Dennis Stock, a photographer brought to fame by his iconic pictures of a young James Dean, is an artistic self-reflexion.
In an essay for magazine "epd Film" Georg Seeßlen interpreted Anton Corbijn´s photographic and cineastic work as expression of a Protestant imprinting (in fact, both the director´s father and grandfather were pastors): "One might say, the Protestant image is more about depth than width, more reduction than abundance, more about the focus than the periphery." What is problematic as a general attribution, does indeed work as an approach to Corbijn´s visual language. Because "LIfe" also expresses a stance that features art as craftsmanship, almost in a demystifying way, be it photography or cinema.
Just like he did with his previous movies Control (2007), The American (2010) und A Most Wanted Man (2013) Corbijn comes up with wellbalanced, carefully and precisely composed images of austere beauty.
On the conditions of making art
“Life” is about young photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), who works assignments on Hollywood´s red carpets, taking pictures of movie stars. At a party thrown by director Nicholas Ray he meets the charismatic “Jimmy”, aka James Dean (Dane DeHaan). Impressed by the latters demonstrative nonchalance, Dennis tries to convince his agent to land him an assignment for a photo feature of the yet unknown actor in prestigious Life magazine. Yet Dean, feeling pressured by the first signs of his looming fame and living more and more reclusive as well as Dennis´ own insecurities and dire financial situation keep getting in the way. The former is hesitant to accelerate his own commercial exploitation, the latter is dead-set on accumulating photos for his portfolio that will get him his own exhibition.
“Life”takes its time to reflect the economic as well as personal circumstances, under which art originates. Freelance photographer Dennis has to accept dull paid commissions that have nothing in common with the artistic vision he wants to explore. Once he discovers the embodiment of that vision in James Dean, he has to go through endless talks with the flaky youngstar as well as with his wary employers. Meanwhile, his personal life goes downhill: He´s estranged from his ex-girlfriend and their son due to his constant traveling and after a hasty tryst with a stranger, who had her eye on James in the first place, a few minutes later the girl cannot even remember Dennis´name.
“That kid is history”
Corbijn stages the moments in Dennis´ encounters with James that made for those iconic photos not as a pinnacle of unique inspiration, but as seemingly casual snapshots, that nonetheless actually require a lot of work and patience. Consequently, “Life”offers no scenes of James Dean “in action” on a movie set or on stage. Press conferences, sobering phone calls with studio boss Jack Warner and nerve-wracking preparations for gala events make for a disillusioning insight into the movie business. Its conditions, “Life”suggests, offer no perspective for a rebellious prodigy such as James Dean but to rise fast and fall even harder.
DeHaan is wonderful, playing the actor as an obscure character, oscillating between apathy and impulsiveness, seemingly listless and lost between the different worlds of Hollywood, NewYork and Indiana. When James fails to show up for the New York premiere of Elia Kazan's "East of Eden", a smug Jack Warner, portrayed as a reckless entrepreneur, simply comments "that kid is history".
Finely tuned melancholy
"Life" clearly shows that Anton Corbijn is a photographer first and foremost and filmmaker secondly. Not only because he has a symbolic cameo as a photographer on the red carpet at the beginning, but because the audience is able to browse through the movie almost as if it were a collection of pictures. Calling "Life" de-dramatized would be taking the thought too far, but it does forego pointed climaxes in favor of a contemplative, more observing than involving imagery that is subtly accentuated by Canadian multi-instrumentalist Owen Palett's score. This approach is especially interesting because it’ s a poignant contrast to the heated, expressive esthetics that is so often associated with James Dean and his movies. Corbijn thus clears the path for another, slowed down perspective on the myth that is James Dean.
This makes "Life" a movie that, with its finely tuned melancholy and despite keeping a distance to its characters, is deeply moving.