Welcome to Marwen is an interesting film and you need to be able to go with its sometimes odd narrative choices. Mostly I could but in one respect I really couldn’t. It should be credited for being true to its real life subject matter when so many Hollywood films sanitise things but there are parts of the Mark Hogancamp story that don’t sit easy with me and while I can see how people forgave these in reality, they are more problematic when put on screen.
In 2000 Hogancamp was the victim of a brutal attack at the hands of five men that put him in a coma for nine days and confined him to hospital for almost two months. Having very nearly died he was left with significant brain damage and little to no memories of his life before he was beaten. As a form of therapy and to give his recovery some purpose Hogancamp built a replica of a Belgian town, circa WWII, in his back yard and populated it with dolls. Hogancamp then photographed various tableaux with these models and his work was discovered and displayed in a number of art galleries. The film tells this story but we also see this world come alive as the dolls act out Hogancamp’s imaginative war time action fantasies. (You can see why director Robert Zemeckis was attracted to the project as it brings together his live action work and his mocap animations.)
As a portrait of a man finding strength in unusual places and with uncommon passions, Welcome to Marwen (Marwen being the name of the fictional Belgian town) is effective enough. Hogancamp, as played by Steve Carell, is clearly not well and this is portrayed sensitively and honestly. The part I found unsettling though is the fact that most of the characters in Hogancamp’s artificial world are women and the way they are depicted is highly regressive.
Hogancamp, in life and in the film, clearly feels a strong connection to women. This manifests in a penchant for wearing women’s shoes, which sadly lead to the hate crime that hospitalised him, and a firm belief that women hold the key to solving the world’s problems. While he clearly respects women though those that inhabit the world he has created are demonstrably presented as objects of desire. Yes, they are strong, confident and independent but they are also dressed in short skirts, tight tops and stockings. The long legs and tiny waists I can forgive, these are shop bought dolls after all, but sexualising these figures who are walking, talking characters in the film, is a choice.
Exposure of the female form is clearly a part of the real Hogancamp’s art and if they’d steered away from this they could have been accused of inauthenticity. The thing is though that every woman in the town of Marwen is based on someone Hogancamp knows. The name Marwen is an amalgam of Mark and Wendy, the woman who found him after the attack, and the real version was called Marwencol for a second woman called Coleen who lived nearby. This is a film where the protagonist objectifies all of the women he knows; his friends, his nurse, his colleague, the lady in the model shop, his physiotherapist, a porn actress whose work he enjoys. He has literally turned them into objects. Not only that but he regularly fantasises about them too. There is an Action Man version of him in Marwen too and there is the occasional tryst. (I’m not sure to what extent the real Hogancamp imagined all of this going on). The woman around him all know what he was doing and totally accept it. In real life you can see why they might have indulged something that was probably harmless but by putting it in a movie they are asking us to go with it too, at a time when cinema is finally waking up to and addressing such sexist representations of women. On film it’s an issue even if it wasn’t in reality.
Welcome to Marwen is an effective portrait of mental illness and the importance of friendship and the fantasy elements are fun. It’s hard not to get swept up in it when toy Mark Hogancamp is flying around in the DeLoren from Zemeckis’ own Back to the Future. (This is pretty indulgent and a total opposite from Spielberg removing all references to his previous work in Ready Player One.) Maybe the depiction of the women is just a little bit of fun too but it is also more than a little lechy.
Welcome to Fnarrwen is out for home viewing now.