Anton Corbijn’s Control, about the life and death of Ian Curtis, the singer for Joy Division, is a film that is fully worthy of its subject. Control is beautiful and bleak, affectively compelling because of (rather than in spite of) its reticence and downbeat everydayness. It’s shot in a high-contrast black and white, which effectively conveys — even as it also aestheticizes and beautifies — the bleakness of its 1970s-working-class (or should I say, lower middle class?) settings. The performances, especially those of Sam Riley as Curtis, and the always-great Samantha Morton as his long-suffering wife Deborah, are utterly compelling in their understatedness. There is no psychologizing here; we only see Curtis from the outside, and are given no clues as to his motivations. This even remains the case when we get voiceovers of his poetry, or at one point even of his internal monologue (as a bandmate attempts, unsuccessfully, of course, to relieve his torment through hypnosis).
But I need to be more specific about this. There’s a certain international-art-film style that works to convey a sense of desolation through the rigorous avoidance of any interiority. These films are shot mostly in long shots and long takes, with a camera that either remains entirely still, or moves slowly, in order to continually but discreetly reframe. The acting is generally low-affect, or entirely affectless; the plot is sufficiently elliptical, oblique, and estranging, as to prevent us from assigning any motivations, or even emotional qualities, to the characters. There are great films in this style (like the works of Bela Tarr, which make us feel like we are seeing the world in an entirely new way), as well as a lot of less successful ones that come across as strained, pretentious, and desperately arty (I’d prefer not to finger any specific bad examples; anyone who watches lots of international art films will have their own sense of this).
Now, what’s great and surprising about Control is that it does not fit into this paradigm at all, even though it shares some of its superficial characteristics. The film’s reticence doesn’t come from distance or an objectifying tendency. In fact, for all its visual austerity, Control is quite an intimate film; it often expresses its characters’ moods with closeups, shot/reverse shot setups, and other conventions of more straighforward narrative cinema. What this means is that Control doesn’t in the least distance us from Ian Curtis; rather, it reveals reticence and distance as Ian Curtis’ own inner experience of himself. We are unable to parse his inner emotional life, only to the extent, and exactly to the extent, that he is unable to parse it himself. Curtis, as portrayed by Riley, is sufficiently out of touch with his own emotions that he even experiences depression only, as it were, at second hand. He seems both vulnerable and soulful, and even a bit annoyingly sorry for himself: but these qualities are also always muffled, as if they were not quite there, or as if Curtis couldn’t understand these sides of himself either. Portraying Curtis in this way makes for a film that is quite melancholy, but that cannot be accused of miserablism, or of kitchen-sink depressive naturalism.
In addition to the compellingly low-key acting, the film stands out by its visual stylization. Corbijn edits anti-dramatically and anti-climactically; that is, he shows us the lead-up to, and the aftermath, of emotionally important moments and turning-points, but often does not show us those moments themselves. There’s never a sense of climax or explosion; in that respect, the film is intriguingly anti-melodramatic. The exceptions to this are Curtis’ epileptic seizures, which are shown to us at uncomfortable length; and also the many performance scenes. Riley entirely captures what I imagine to have been Curtis’ on-stage charisma (as he killed himself shortly before what would have been the band’s first tour of the United States, I never got the chance to see him live). He stands stock-still as the band begins to play, breaks into jerky motions that are not quite dance moves, then grabs the mic with a sort of controlled avidity and intones (rather than shouts) the songs’ lyrics.
Curtis’ dancing/singing style, as expressed through Riley’s body language, is also the visual style of the film as a whole. Corbijn is famous as a still photographer (in fact, his photos of the actual Curtis, back in 1979/1980, did a lot to cement Curtis’ image, and to give a face to the stifled depressiveness and anguish of he music); so it is perhaps not surprising that Control’s luminous black-and-white often takes on the aura, and arranged beauty, of arty still photography. (Indeed, it is often a stock complaint about either still photographers, or cinematographers, turned filmmakers, that they present images that are merely pretty, without being cinematically compelling. Further discussion of this will have to await Rosalind Galt‘s forthcoming theorization of the problem of the “pretty” in film). But again, part of the brilliance and power of Control lies precisely in the way that it is organized around the play of stillness and motion (much as Curtis’ performance style, at least as portrayed by Riley, is organized around such a play). Many shots begin by looking like stills; we have to wait several seconds before a body or head in frame moves a bit (when Riley or Morton open their eyes, or light a cigarette, or whatever). The life of the film is a matter of these moments of stillness and motion, and of the discontinuous transitions between them. The film has a lot of empty time in it: Curtis is just lying in bed, smoking, or sitting on the sofa with a whiskey bottle, watching the telly. Minimal motions sometimes disrupt or modulate this stillness, and beyond that there are all sorts of degrees of motion in-frame, up to the spasmodic motions of the epileptic attacks. Also, although there are lots of shots of people in cars (the band going to a gig, etc.), there’s never really a sense of getting anywhere. We are always either in-between or back at the starting point. No matter how popular Joy Division becomes, the film never gives us any sense of (either literal or metaphorical) arrival. Control is a film that leaves us with a lot to ponder, but very little to say; and this inconclusiveness, applied to the fatality of Curtis’ tragically short life- and career-trajectory, is precisely what the film means, and how it makes us feel (or at least, how it made me feel).