Anton Corbijn's unmistakable stylings have made him one of the few rock photographers who has become as well known as the stars he photographs. But, after a long list of striking music videos and a superb theatrical debut with the Ian Curtis biopic Control, Mr. Corbijn has lined up a series of intriguing, leftfield filmmaking choices, of which Life is only the latest.
On paper, it seemed to be right up the director's alley: it's the tale behind the 1955 photo shoot photographer Dennis Stock made with James Dean, eventually printed on Life magazine, at a time when East of Eden had not opened yet and the young actor was about to hit the big time. But both the script (by writer Luke Davies) and Mr. Corbijn's take on the story are not so much about pictures and photography as they are about fame and the media circus, something the director knows first-hand from his work with major music stars and which also played a part in Control.
The conceit of Life is that that iconic photo shoot - showing a moody Dean walking through a rainy Times Square and goofing around the family ranch in Indiana - was a direct result of a yearning for both actor and photographer to leave behind their salad days and move to the next level. For Stock, tired of the shooting-stills and red-carpet circuit and wanting to be taken seriously as a photo-reporter, capturing correctly the actor's charisma could be the golden ticket; for Dean, an Actors Studio alum uneasy about being groomed as just another teen idol, the photo shoot could kickstart things outside the studio orbit and allow him to be seen as a serious actor and not just another cog in Warner's PR machine.
Stock and Dean are too different to effectively be friends; no bromance for Messrs. Corbijn and Davies, but a push-pull dynamic where the two young men recognise each other's talents but are too anxious about themselves to actually open up to the other. It's in that subterranean dynamic that Life makes sense and works best. Mr. Corbijn, who has proved before to be very attentive to his actors, effectively and adroitly directs Robert Pattinson and Dane de Haan. Mr. Pattinson is particularly strong in the less flashy role of Dennis Stock, smartly balancing ambition and insecurity; Mr. De Haan gets the short end of the stick as Dean, but still manages to capture well the mythical actor's shuffling attitude and presence. (Australian all-rounder Joel Edgerton also registers strongly as Stock's Magnum agent.)
For all that, Life is strangely "lifeless", even listless - for a work directed by a photographer, it does tend to fall back all too often into the prestige-period-feel trap, especially since the 1950s are such an iconic era. But maybe that was Mr. Corbijn's bait-and-switch all along: if you come to Life expecting a photographer's film or another take on the Dean Myth, you'll be surprised that it's not quite that. It's a tale about breaking free of the system - while still playing its game.
Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, US, 2015, 111 minutes
Starring Robert Pattinson, Dane de Haan, Joel Edgerton, Alessandra Mastronardi, Stella Schnabel, Ben Kingsley
Directed by Anton Corbijn; written by Luke Davies; cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (widescreen); music by Owen Pallett; designer Anastasia Masaro; costumes by Gersha Phillips; editor Nick Fenton; produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Christina Piovesan, Benito Mueller and Wolfgang Mueller, for Téléfilm Canada, Filmfour, Screen Australia, Filmförderung Schleswig-Holstein, See-Saw Films, First Generation Films and Barry Films in association with Filmnation Entertainment, Cornerpiece Capital, Entertainment One, The Harold Greenberg Fund, Cross City Sales and The Movie Network
Screened September 18th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening