Control (2007)

Ian Curtis biopic, Control, is a movie that touches a vulnerable spot despite its cooly restrained direction. This is certainly the case for everyone involved in the production. The director, Anton Corbijn, not only knew the people in and around the band personally, he was one of the early believers of their music and helped to shape the legacy of the group: his early photographs of the band iconised Joy Division for generations by perfectly visualising the mood of the time and the place wherein the story of the band was born and died. The script is based on the book written by Curtis’ widow, Deborah, Touching From A Distance (1995), published 15 years after her husband’s suicide. Their daughter, Natalie, graces the screen as an audience of a live performance. And the production team enlists three notable names from the history of Joy Division: Corbijn, who is said to have paid the 50 percent of the production cost out of his pocket; Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records and one of the earliest supporters of the band; and Deborah Curtis. For those who are directly involved with the life and death of Ian Curtis, this is a painful yet necessary step that must have been taken. And for those who are mere admirers of Joy Division’s music, this is a kind of movie which must be witnessed with a solemn silence: ultimately, no one can respectfully and responsibly comment on the lives dramatised here. Hence I shall only treat one aspect of the movie: How Control preserves a respectful distance to the lives dramatised in the movie. This is especially true about Ian Curtis: despite the movie's faithfulness to the source material, Curtis remains a missing person, a contemporary embodiment of Traklian departedness.

Control is a biopic in a proper sense of the word. It is dramatised with a distinct style and the competent performance of lead actors, that is, Sam Riley (Ian Curtis), Samantha Morton (Deborah Curtis: Curtis’ estranged wife) and Alexandra Maria Lara (Annik Honoré: Curtis’ lover). It follows Curtis from his adolescence, the band’s rise to fame and to the moment of his death. Whilst it is shot with Corbijn’s distinctly moody monochrome palette which misleads us to expect the same creative touch that characterises his music videos in the film, Control submits itself to the conventions of a biopic from the beginning to the end: it follows a linear story line chronologically and covers all the major biographical talking points without disruptions. There is no visual experiments one might have expected from the acclaimed videographer: Corbijn does not even employ flashbacks/throwbacks. Whilst it was a good judgement to refrain from visual experiments à la Hour of the Wolf in a vain attempt to imagine Curtis’ mental landscape expressed in his lyrics, the Dutch director also abstained from the use of symbolism which is perhaps the most distinct characteristics of his music videos. Corbijn remains faithful to Deborah Curtis’ account throughout, and, despite the expressiveness of his signature monochrome frame, the cinema feels unaffected and detached. Notwithstanding the youth of protagonists, even the most dramatic moments feel cooly restrained.

It may be easy to attribute this ‘flaw’ to the performance of a new director and/or the lead actor. Whilst Corbijn’s distinct style suits the subject and the occasion, it is not a natural fit for this medium: it gives a sense of stillness as opposed to the flowing synthesis of senses and affections. He employed the same style to his second feature film, The American (2010), albeit without his signature monochrome, and it was a complete failure. Corbijn’s still-like style worked well in a scene wherein the American (George Clooney) meets a contract killer (Thekla Reuten) to deliver a weapon. The sequence in question is undoubtedly one of the most tense exchanges between two laconic characters in ages. Yet, for the rest of the movie, neither the directorial style nor the lead actor delivers the desired effect. Clooney is always a good Clooney, and his presence turns what could be a Skjoldbjærg-esque existential-psychological thriller (e.g., Insomnia) into a soap opera wherein Corbijn finds himself out of place. Hence The American is a Frankenstein’s monster in a proper sense of the word: the combination of Clooney and Corbijn cannot create a happy synthesis. On the other hand, Corbijn is at home with the austerity of Control. Ian Curtis is someone who is forever frozen in memory, and the still-like quality of the cinematography perfectly expresses the existential angst of the protagonist: he is forever cut-off from his fellow humans as a human. In this regard, one might find the lead actor quite wanting: whilst Riley delivers serious live performances on stage, he cannot come across as a man who is 'separated from the rest by a lightening bolt' (Genesis P-Orridge). This utterly impenetrable otherness is nowhere to be seen in Riley’s Curtis: he is rather a sensitive lad who is at once tremendously gifted and burdened. He suffered epileptic seizures on and off stage. Creative and imaginative, he married too young by a flight of fancy, and suffered a slow and painful deterioration of domestic life which was further complicated by his affair with Annik. In short, Riley’s Curtis is very relatable : one can find neat explanations to everything about this enigma in this film. And this is the principal function of a biopic: whilst not entirely demystifying the subject, it offers one set of clearly formulated story of a life and puts a human face on some well-known figure. Yet, whilst one wishes to see Cillian Murphy playing Ian Curtis for a more nuanced interpretation of this complex character, Sam Riley’s Curtis brings forth the vulnerability of the youth, thereby putting a human face to this enigma and bring him ‘down to earth’. Yet, in the end, Control betrays its supposed end. Corbijn and his cast do everything they are supposed to do in a biopic, yet the movie does not bring Curtis closer to us. After learning or re-learning the outline of Curtis’ life, we are left with a feeling: he is still missing.

Then, is Control a failure of a film? Is this a mere curiosity designed to appeal to the nostalgia of a generation? Fortunately Control is none of the above. Whilst it is not a masterpiece, Control is a fine movie with an interesting attribute: it betrays what a biopic is intended to be. In this respect, it is important to note Samantha Morton’s stated disliking of the genre (see). She joined the cast to play Deborah despite her aversion to biopics. The actor sees a biopic generally uninspiring, for the lives dramatised in it are public, hence everyone ‘knows’ what happens in the story. As a result, a biopic remains dramatically tame. In her interview Morton asserts that Control is anything but a typical biopic, and she is quite right in her assertion. Whilst she is not particularly clear about how this movie is different from other biopics, we should for once trust her intuition and examine why the actor decided to join the cast. Firstly, Morton was compelled to join because of her great affinity toward Joy Division’s music. Secondly, she loved Deborah’s biography. And last but not least, Morton has been an admirer of Corbijn’s photography. Incidentally Morton happens to perfectly describe what makes Control such a unique biopic. Yet we are still unclear the reasons why these characteristics in synthesis makes Control what it is. Hence it is necessary to take steps to analyse these three aspects of the movie to show how this movie is so different from other biopics. Firstly, Control is a movie about the spirit of a particular time and place which is iconised by the still photographs presented by Anton Corbijn: it is simply impossible for us to imagine Joy Division’s world without the darkly beautiful monochrome of the Dutch photographer. Naturally the film appears as an extension of Corbijn’s photographs; not a once in the movie one forgets who is in the director’s seat. Fortunately, unlike in his following effort, Corbijn’s strict observation of his signature visual style does not interfere the aesthetic integrity of the movie in question; in fact it enhances it by bringing back the spirit of the late 1970s’ English suburbia: suffocating, claustrophobic and desperately mundane. Hence Control is not only about the life which has become a public domain: it is equally a subjective reflection of a specific Zeitgeist wherein the band and a man played the role of a touchstone. Whilst this may be one of the chief characteristics of a biopic, Control does it a little differently: due to the gravity of the subject and the stylistic austerity, Control does not ooze with the self-aggrandisement of music related biopics. Whilst every movie about 1960s drips with self-serving nostalgia, another movie about Factory Records, that is, 24 Hour Party People, follows the same pattern: they only provide the caricatures of the respective Zeitgeist they claim to represent. In this respect, Control distinguishes itself as a film that actually expresses it.

Secondly, Control is a film about the music of Joy Division. This point seems so obvious in that one might feel quite embarrassed to see it mentioned. Yet the role of Joy Division's music in this film is really different from typical music related biopics such as The Doors: they lavish the audience with a ‘human story’ of a tragically gifted star accompanied by throwback moments of stage performances to entertain. On the other hand, in Control, it is the music who carries the entire film as another lead protagonist. And this results in a truly fascinating parallel: like Ian Curtis, Control lives on two extremes. As we have noted already, the movie maintains a certain detachment from itself. It is however not the cooly calculated unaffectedness exhibited by the likes of David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network and Gone Girl) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina and Annihilation): they favour critical lucidity over affective immersion in their cinema (Their detachment, however, is not the same as Verfremdungseffekt as seen in the works of Bertolt Brecht or in The Handmaiden by Park Chan-wook. For Brecht, Verfremdungseffekt is at once a method and the subject in itself. For Park Chan-wook, it does not deny the affective engagement of the audience altogether). For their movies to function as intended, they need to curve out a space of reasons wherein they can steer the audience toward a critical engagement with their work. Control also exhibits affective coolness yet for different reasons: as we discuss later, the insurmountable distance from the unfolding dramas is due to Corbijn’s respect for the lives represented in this movie. That being acknowledged, there is yet another, entirely different, side to the film: the frightening openness expressed in the live scenes. These scenes are utterly absorbing in that one feels completely possessed by its force. If such a description of electrifying exhilaration sounds familiar, you are on the right track: this is exactly the way in which Joy Division’s live performance has been described. In this sense, Control is a binary cinematic experience: on one hand, there is a story of lives captured in a strict monochrome; on the other hand, it is a paranormal experiment wherein one is transposed to watch a phantom perform his music. The spell cast by Joy Division is utterly transfixing in that when the cinema presents the band’s live performances, despite being replicas, they overpower all rules and measures put into place to preserve the aesthetic integrity of the film. The music tears apart everything, including its principal performer, in order to express itself. And the terrifying nature of Beauty commands respect from anyone who dares to experience it. To his credit, Corbijn simply steps aside when the music takes over: it has the life of its own and anyone who wishes to limit its power should immediately regret one’s utter foolishness. And this inherent paradox and the resulting tension make Control a compelling cinema.

Lastly, Control is ultimately a movie which appreciates the insurmountable nature of otherness. Despite Corbijn's intimacy with the subject, Curtis remains a stranger. We see the twists and turns of his life in detail, yet we know very little of how and why Curtis took his part in them, save the reasons why all of this had to happen to any of the respective protagonists in the first place. Naturally there is a theoretical explanation to this phenomenon. The latter is simply inaccessible for human reason: we cannot have observable facts about things beyond our grasp such as ‘fate’. Hence anything we attempt to say with such a grand metaphysical notion is nonsensical, or Sinnlos (Frege and Wittgenstein): such a statement cannot establish a coherent semantic correspondence with the reality as we know it. Furthermore, the former is also inaccessible to us: we cannot experience someone’s ‘pain’ itself; we can only comprehend the meaning of the word associated with the sensations expressed. This also means: one has no immediate access to our own experience. To be ‘sad’ is to identify one’s experience with the linguistic concept of ‘sadness’. In this sense, when Curtis expresses his feelings through words, he is already distancing himself from what he is trying to express by linguistically representing it. This leaves Joy Division’s music: with it, we are left with a surging emotion that cannot be named. Whilst being unnamable, the effect of their music upon one’s affection is utterly absorbing in that one often finds oneself with ‘one’ with the ‘feeling’: the music directly transposes us into the Sturm und Drang by which was he drown. In the middle of such a turmoil and exhilaration, we simply cannot have any lucid understanding, for the distinction between a subject and an object dissolves into an affective storm thereby alienating us from our own experience. Hence the objective means fail us to close the distance, the subjective means, that is, Joy Division’s music, overcomes our ability to put our experience in words.

Yet Morton sees Control as an atypical biopic not because of a general theoretical impossibility of understanding a person; the actor is concerned about an attitude toward the right to privacy, and in this respect Corbijn and his crew had to take a very different approach from conventional biopics. This comes from a recognition: despite being dramatised and enacted for the public, Curtis and his family's lives are their own. To clearly understand this point, it is crucial to examine the reasons why Deborah Curtis penned and published her memoir in the first place. Whilst there may have been many reasons for someone who is surviving such a tremendous loss to make her experience public, Deborah’s publication of her account of their lives is first and foremost a solemn act of remembrance, hence strictly personal in nature. This apparent paradox is best understood in relation to one of Wittgenstein’s insights: There is no private language. Because to think of or understand something is to put such a thought into words, yet these words are collectively formulated and defined over time within a given Form of Life, one cannot be ‘alone’ even in solitary contemplation. Whilst Wittgenstein is correct in his assessment, humankind requires a more robust sociality in order to develop and maintain her/their/his sense of who she/they/he is. Just as one can only confirm one’s existence by having a singular perspective made up by the aggregation of the representations of objects, one cannot develop and maintain the sense of self without interacting with other speakers. Without being interpersonally active, one soon loses sight of an objective sense of who she/they/he is. An ego cannot be maintained without objective confirmations and/or corrections of its own subjectivity. Hence the most fundamental reason why one would communicate one’s subjective account with others is to create/maintain the tension between a subjective picture with objective ones. This process is necessary for one to develop and maintain a robust personhood, which in turn is a necessary condition to be a human. Yet this does not necessarily mean: communicating one’s subjective account in public is to allow one’s life to become an open book. Whilst we may seek public attentions, the most fundamental reason for interpersonal communications is its indispensability in developing and maintaining our own selves. This means one thing: just because someone 'shares' her/their/his subjective account does not mean she/they/he has relinquished her/their/his right to privacy. It is in fact the opposite: since interacting with others is primarily an act of developing and maintaining one’s self, putting oneself in the eyes of public means not only to ask for an engagement, but also to request a proper respect for one’s privacy. As paradoxical as it sounds, this tension between the needs for closeness and the need for distance is constitutive to our agency: whilst one cannot be an open book to the public, because it is simply impossible and because one cannot bear it, one needs to maintain an opaque openness to others in order to develop and maintain our agency. And, for the health of one's personhood, one always seeks to control this process with varying degrees of success.

And it is fortunate that Corbijn and his crew understood this peculiar nature of human agency. As a result, they were able to produce a movie about real people without falsely representing their lives and/or violating their dignity. Corbijn’s respect to Curtis and his family enabled him to impose a certain detachment to the dramas unfolding on screen whilst strictly following source materials without making it feel voyeuristic. This tension between the closeness and the opaqueness represented in the film makes Control compelling. Yet, the ultimate ‘failure’ to capture Curtis by putting a human face on this enigmatic figure is fitting not only because of the constitutive shotcoming of our language, but also because of the impossible complexities of afflictions this singer suffered. Curtis was no ordinary case, and whilst there is a danger of idolising a real human being thereby misrepresenting the said person, given the many peculiarities of the life he struggled, we must simply respect and accept what is presented to us as 'his life'. In this respect, ultimately, the most precious gift of Control is: it offers us an opportunity to silently appreciate the otherness of someone. Whilst it is impossible to do so constantly and sustainably in a company of another human being, this movie reminds us of its forgotten necessity in its wake. And this is of utmost necessity when we engage with the likes of Ian Curtis, a Verschollene, who speaks to us ever more clearly in his absence. In this, this 'biopic' confronts us with the final paradox: we can truly appreciate someone only in absentia, when it is too late. Perhaps this is the reason why we continue to listen to Joy Division. And we are fortunate to have their music with us, for there are times when nothing else would do.