Welcome to Marwen: Keep Giving All the Love You Can, by David Bax
Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen begins with a swirl of Alan Silvestri music that harkens back to the crowd-pleasing movie magic of his 1980s collaborations with the director. It’s a bit of self-consciousness that may nevertheless be fitting; Zemeckis likely sees something of himself in his protagonist, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), a man who captures sweet, fantastical, imagined worlds with his camera. Zemeckis even allows Hogancamp to make allusions to Back to the Future in his own work. But maybe it’s that closeness to the character and material that kept Zemeckis from noticing how misguided and awkward his film was becoming, despite its curious perversity.
Welcome to Marwen catches up with Hogancamp three years after a brutal attack that left him with both physical and emotional scars and no memory of his life prior to that night. Now he processes his experiences and feelings through the elaborate 1940s Belgian town of Marwen that he’s created with dolls, action figures, dollhouse parts and other flotsam and jetsam in his yard. Here he imagines scenarios which he stages and photographs in order to tell stories involving World War II versions of himself and the people in his life, some of them Nazis but most of them representations of the various kind and attentive women he knows, from nurses to coworkers to hobby shop employees.
When Hogancamp is acting out these stories, we see them dramatized by computer-animated, motion capture avatars. The rubbery, videogame quality of these sections is a tad off-putting, though the choice to blend the animation with what appears to be real life foliage and dirt is compelling.
What strikes us first about these sequences is that the meek mannered, soft spoken Hogancamp portrays himself as a rugged but gentle man’s man, a soldier who goes by Hogie and gives off an air of easy confidence. These are fantasies of masculinity dreamt up by a man who possesses little of its accepted traits in real life. Yet the way that he manipulates and simplifies the stand-ins for the women he knows is not that far from how he treats their actual counterparts. And so, one of the questions posed by Welcome to Marwen is whether Hogancamp’s condescension to and commodification of women suddenly becomes acceptable because he is harmless and effectively neutered. In other words, if we remove the macho-ness from toxic masculinity, does it become less toxic? This is explored most deeply in Hogancamp’s relationship to his neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann in an outstanding performance), whom he reduces to her passion for tea (and all its domestic, dainty, subservient connotations) while flagrantly ignoring or literally running from signifiers of her more complex life, like the photographs of her deceased son or the ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson) who still shows up unannounced and unwanted. Complicating these gender studies is the evidence that Nicol often willingly submits to this dynamic; when Hogancamp behaves inappropriately toward her, she is the one who apologizes.
Thornier still are the sexual implications of Hogancamp and Nicol’s relationship. Though she is clearly and vocally uninterested in pursuing a physical or romantic partnership with him, there is a back and forth of dominant and submissive behavior between them. When it comes to the doll version of Nicol, Hogancamp’s fetishes are unbridled. He dresses her how he wants and dictates everything she says and does. But in real life, though she presents as demure, she is a controlling participant in their psychosexual gamesmanship. Hogancamp has a shoe fixation, owning almost 300 pairs of women’s shows, and when Nicol gifts him a pair of stilettos similar to the ones he’s put on the Nicol doll, it could be a gesture of tenderness and understanding or it could be a power move in which both parties take unspoken pleasure.
Zemeckis is no stranger to delicate but understated sexual material–remember, Back to the Future is largely about a guy contending with a mother who wants to fuck him–but the panderer in him stubbornly prevails as usual. As the film goes on, he increasingly sidelines the richer subtextual veins of the material in favor of more easily understood, yet nonetheless highlighted, allegories for Hogancamp’s recovery process. He insists on superficial epiphanies and lightweight uplift via thudding, literal-minded metaphors. Just like that cheesy music at the beginning, he’s intent on pleasing the most people possible instead of letting Welcome to Marwen fly the freak flag it so desperately wants to.