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Non-Review Review: Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen is a deeply weird film, and not in a good way.

The basic structure of the film is a feel good narrative of a character coming to terms with his post-traumatic stress disorder. Mark Hogancamp was beaten almost to death by a group of Neo-Nazis outside a bar, for nothing more than mentioning that he liked to wear women’s clothes. Mark has retreated into himself, creating a model village called “Marwen”, an anachronistic Belgian village from the Second World War. The town is home to a toyetic doppelgänger for Mark, the heroic “Hoogie”, who finds the courage to fight Nazis despite his losses.

The toast of the town.

The arc of the film is very obvious from that premise, with a number of other details sprinkled into the script to provide stakes and momentum. Nicol, an attractive redhead dealing with the loss of her son and a stalker ex-boyfriend, moves in across the way and connects with Mark. At the same time, the sentencing of the criminals who attacked Mark is fast approaching, and Mark needs to read his “victim impact statement” in open court. There is also a suggestion that Mark is wrestling with addiction, having to careful ration his painkillers.

All of this is fairly standard prestige picture stuff, providing Mark and the audience with a very clear journey across the film and offering a potentially hopeful conclusion to Mark’s journey. This is all very hokey, but it could work. It is a very earnest narrative, but director Robert Zemeckis is the kind of storyteller who knows how to make those sorts of narratives work. Forrest Gump is a beloved classic for a reason, no matter how clumsy and hokey it might be.

Mark his words…

However, Welcome to Marwen chooses to elaborate upon its stock upbeat triumph-over-adversity template in a number of frankly bizarre ways. Welcome to Marwen flails wildly between genres, pivoting from earnest and overwrought melodrama to absurd fantasy to lazy comedy on a dime. The issue is not that Welcome to Marwen doesn’t cohere as a film, the issue is that many of the individual scenes within the film struggle to find a consistent tone from one minute to another.

Zemeckis is a skilled enough craftsman that the film impresses on a purely technical level; the dolls tilt into the uncanny valley on occasion, but there is every indication that this is intentional. However, on a purely narrative level, Welcome to Marwen feels like it was put together by a twelve-year-old who had only read about how movies work.

Hoogie’s heroes.

When Welcome to Marwen works, it is largely in the smaller details. In its first half-hour-or-so, Welcome to Marwan slowly reveals how carefully and how considerately the people around Mark have taken care of him following the horrific incident that robbed him of his memory and his self-confidence. The local hobby shop has a ramp that is marked for the use of the little jeep that Mark drags around, while the local bar pays him to come in and make meatballs once a week, while the staff ask with genuine interest about the goings-on in Mark’s fictitious village.

There is something endearingly sincere in these small scenes and moments, a sense that an entire community has come together to help a man heal from an impossible trauma with genuine affection and warmth. There are a few small indications of complications and contradictions; missing figures who vanished without a trace, lost in Mark’s memory and only fleetingly acknowledged by the people around him. Even Nicol responds to Mark’s eccentricity with compassion and curiousity, eager to share in his distinctive way of seeing the world.

“Are we doing Saturday Night Fever or Airplane?”

More than that, Welcome to Marwen is refreshingly explicit in classifying what happened to Mark as “a hate crime” and in drawing a connection between the Nazis that “Hoogie” fights in Mark’s fantasy and the Neo-Nazis who left Mark broken and battered. This is a very low threshold, of course, but it is still welcome in the current political climate that Welcome to Marwen never tries to dance around the details of what happened to Mark and is unafraid to identify such violence as what it is. These are small details that work, but they suggest that Welcome to Marwen is trying.

Unfortunately, these are almost the only things that work in the two-hour film, which is a fairly serious problem. Most viscerally and immediately, the biggest issue with Welcome to Marwen is one of tone. The movie never finds a singular voice or perspective, and so bounces between several modes of storytelling. It isn’t just in the movement between the real world and the eponymous Belgian village. It is in smaller moments within scenes. Welcome to Marwen understands that it has to hit certain storybeats and details, but never seems sure how seriously to play them.

Guys and dolls.

A couple of examples might help. The introductory sequence offers an origin story for “Hoogie”, the American pilot shot down over the Belgian countryside. His shoes are burnt off, and the first set of replacement shoes that he happens to find belong to a woman, hidden in a tossed suitcase in the back of a crashed German car. On quick cut later, and Mark is wearing the shoes. It is a comedy beat, a punchline. The image is meant to be absurd and ridiculous. It is only a few minutes later that it is revealed that Mark was brutally beaten for his desire to wear women’s shoes.

This happens more than a few times over the course of Welcome to Marwen, in both the real world and the dream world. At one point, the Nazis have captured “Hoogie” and are torturing him with a whip, marks visible on his back. The “women of Marwen” come to his rescue in a sequence set to Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love. The women are seducing the Germans with the promise of alcohol, only to throw Molotov Cocktails. The Germans scream as they are immolated, their charred corpses left on the steps of the local church.

Drinking an Americano.

The soundtrack is the culprit for many (but not all) of these moments. At one point, Mark is instructed to build a time machine by the anthropomorphic personification of his addiction. He bolts up in bed to the rhythms of the Dandy Warhols’ Bohemian Like You as he rushes to town to find a lava lamp to complete the task. At another point, a montage establishing Mark’s daily routine tries to paint him as somebody dealing with an incredible trauma, only for Crazy to play on the soundtrack as a glib and dismissive summary of his condition.

Steve Carrell himself is responsible for more than a few of these ill-judged genre transitions within scenes, most notably when the script tries to play to his comedic ability. Early in the film, “Hoogie” rescues a young milk maid from some sinister Nazis with bad intentions. He grows attached to her, and she is attracted to him. However, she is swiftly killed off before they can actually connect with one another. It is a scene that is supposed to play as tragic, a lost connection for “Hoogie” in a hostile world. Instead, “Hoogie” deadpans, “No use crying over spilled milk.”

Snapping under the pressure.

Welcome to Marwen repeatedly plays up the character’s reactions to the absurdities around him. “Ah, c’mon!” he proclaims loudly when complications unexpected emerge. Late in the film, “Hoogie” visits a church in order to pray for the life of a woman that he loves. He is shy, timid, awkward. He has never prayed before. He attempts to open himself to some divine authority. Then a Nazi arrives in the church. “This is how you answer my prayer?!” the dolls awkwardly gurns, instantly erasing any sense of threat or pathos.

The problems aren’t merely confined to the eponymous model village. There are several points at which the sequences in the real world awkwardly tip over into slapstick from heightened melodrama. At one point, Mark is harassed by Nicol’s vicious ex-boyfriend who accuses him of being “a white supremacist paedophile.” Mark panics, and retreats back into his home. However, once through the door, he drops a model jeep that sets in motion a Rube Goldberg series of events that ends with a trapdoor slammed on Mark’s head like something from Home Alone.

I assure you that any caption I add here will be more tasteful than the film.

These sharp and sudden turns clutter and obstruct what should be a fairly linear and straightforward narrative. For example, that sequence is the last appearance of Nicol’s stalker ex-boyfriend, but it somehow comes a full scene before Nicol exposits his back story. There is a recurring suggestion that Mark has an addictive personality, whether for alcohol before the incident or painkillers afterwards, to the point that the movie’s villain is his addiction literalised. However, the addiction is only mentioned in dialogue, and never seen in effect.

This tonal imbalance works both ways. As much as these weird asides feel out of place themselves, they also undercut the film’s attempts at genuine emotional heft. Welcome to Marwen spends a significant amount of time building to a confrontation between Mark and the “so-called” people who beat him. His story moves these grown monsters to tears in one of the most unconvincing shots in Zemeckis’ entire career. Given that Zemeckis has eagerly paved the uncanny valley, that is quite an accomplishment.

Soldiering on.

Outside of how the tone affects the movie’s narrative, the other biggest problem is the movie’s very creepy hypersexualisation of the dolls that population the town of Marwen. The starting premise here is a little weird; Mark is admittedly a little creepy, in that his favourite movie is a porn film and he has populated this little village with replicas of women that he knows so that he can act out fantasies with them.

The movie doesn’t downplay the creepiness of this, but leans into it. After Niccol moves into the house opposite Mark, he buys a doll so that he can own a copy of her. In the sequence where he touches up his replica Niccol, I’ve Got Love In My Tummy plays on the soundtrack as an attempt at playful goofiness. However, it also hints at the weird possessiveness of that sort of attraction. As Mark makes his model Niccol, Ohio Express sing, “Love is such a sweet thing, good enough to eat, and I feel like loving you.” Love and consumption become interchangeable.

Let’s see how this develops.

This possessiveness is heavily, repeatedly, and explicitly sexualised. The milk maiden that “Hoogie” rescues early in the film was the victim of an attempted gang rape, which Mark repeatedly describes as a “sausage party.” Despite her trauma, the maiden has a bottomless bucket of milk that the film can helpfully and repeatedly splash over her in a very suggestive manner. The first Nazi featured in the film is defeated with a forceful kick to the crotch. At another point, the Germans rip the top off one of the female dolls. When she clutches her breasts, they squeak.

There is nothing inherently wrong with acknowledging or discussing sexuality in film. Indeed, there’s even some fun to be had in discussing it outside the context of human bodies. Zemeckis understands this. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? undoubtedly made a very strong impression on young men of certain age. However, there is something incredibly creepy about scenes of these dolls (who stand in for the women around Mark) dressed in lingerie and presented for the male gaze. This is a story of trauma, but of male trauma. The women are reduced to literal objects.

Be a doll.

There is a sense that Welcome to Marwen might be hypersexualising these (literally) sexless dolls as an attempt to “compensate” for Mark’s crossdressing. Mark repeatedly and aggressively asserts his masculinity. “I wear women’s shoes to connect with the essence of dames,” Mark explains to Niccol in the persona of “Hoogie.” He elaborates, “Because I love dames.” There is a sense in which Welcome to Marwen seems to feel the need to repeatedly assert Mark’s heterosexuality, even tying it to his crossdressing.

Welcome to Marwen seems worried that the audience might be uncomfortable with a lead who wears women’s shoes, as so bends over backwards in order to assure viewers that even his smooth-crotched doll-sized doppelgänger can f?!k. This seems like a very strange observation for Welcome to Marwen to foreground so emphatically.

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