I re-watched Control recently, the biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis.
I've watched a lot of films about male artists, and it is always fascinating to look at the impact of their obsessiveness — and their fame — on their family. This one is no exception.
In Control, which tracks the short life of cult figure Ian Curtis, there is a party scene where a woman talking to Curtis's wife enviously acknowledges how famous he has become. “Not to me,” Deborah Curtis smiles. “I still have to wash his underpants.”
Here, the music scene is a masculine world; Deborah is the long-suffering, marginalised wife, bearing the brunt of her husband’s creative talent, while he winds up the tragic hero, despite his domineering behaviour towards his wife and almost total negligence as a father.
Although the teenaged Deborah was also writing poetry when she met her future husband, he was always the focus of the relationship, she has said. “I don’t remember him ever asking to see what I was writing. That’s partly my own fault — I stopped writing after we got married. But I think he was so powerful that our lives were sort of centred around his art, and what he was going to do.”
In her response to the film, British novelist and art critic Bidisha argued that: “Great men attract subservient women and are forgiven for their unkindness because of the marvellous gifts they present to the world”.
She accuses recent artist biopics, such as those celebrating Bob Dylan, Jackson Pollock and Ian Curtis, of passing off acts of rebellion, arrogance and cruelty as reflections of greatness in men, while female artists are “neurotic nut-jobs … called by their first names” — think Sylvia, Iris, Frida — almost always in thrall to some more famous (though, history shows, not necessarily more talented) man.
Do you agree with this? Can anyone recommend some positive biopics about artists who wove their art into full lives as partners and parents?
One wonderful antidote is The Beaches of Agnes, French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda's film-memoir (currently showing at the Melbourne Film Festival) about her very full life as an artist and mother.
Placing herself amongst extracts from her films, and images and interviews recalling her past, the unstoppable Varda offers a fascinating and playful account of her creative work, her feminism and her family life.