364 days a year, cinema acts for me as a free and non-prescription anti depressant and source of near-spiritual hope and reassurance. Films like A Serious Man, Mary Poppins and Punch Drunk Love offer me comfort and peace at times of enormous self doubt and internal discomfort. I’m lucky I can connect to art to feel better; it’s a privilege not everybody shares.
Yet on occasion, the movies can be more of a hindrance to my happiness than a pleasant escape. Especially when they push the buttons of very specific phobias and fears without offering any real solution to the discomfort they create. I’ve written of how, when I was very young, I found the Mara Wilson double bill of Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire quite traumatising, offering me a darkly comedic and cruel vision of adult life without sufficient compensation.
In my teens, the Jodie Foster thriller Flightplan kept me awake for several nights with its paranoid depiction of child abduction on a plane and a woman’s pleas being dismissed as insanity.
Then, on January 9 this year, a little-seen but widely-mocked Robert Zemeckis drama called Welcome to Marwen ruined my day. Marwen was marketed in a most bizarre fashion, and audiences had little idea what the film was about. The UK poster features Steve Carell dressed in vintage Air Force uniform, a tiny 3D doll of himself sat beside him on a park bench. The US poster is just a giant close-up of Doll Carell. Welcome? To? Marwen? Nobody understood. It’s easy to see why the studio flinched at having to sell this movie. It’s strange and sad and really unpleasant viewing, camouflaged as a feelgood sentimental drama released at the height of jolly winter (Christmas week in the US).
Carell plays Mark Hogancamp, a bachelor recovering from a horrific homophobic hate crime that has left him brain damaged. He’s got an interest in wearing women’s shoes, and we’re led to believe this was probably what attracted his attackers. He lives alone but is cared for by a variety of kind women: a housekeeper, a local shopkeeper, a neighbour (Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Weaver and Leslie Mann). In his attic he keeps a vast collection of dolls modelled to look like versions of himself and his friends; he takes photographs of these dolls in miniature WW2 reenactment sets. In these sequences, the film bursts into CGI action and the dolls come to life.
Mark is generally a cheerful individual but — and if you weren’t feeling uncomfortable already, you will now — he’s tormented by the personification of his addictive medication, taking the form of a Belgian witch terrifyingly voiced by Diane Kruger who flies around his room at night and invades his dreams.
Now, I should add, in Zemeckis and co’s defence, that I was not in a happy place to begin with the evening I went to see this film. I’d just returned to Dublin after the Christmas holiday and had foolishly failed to make any plans to keep myself occupied, facing a week of relative wintry solitude. If I was feeling pretty lonely to begin with, Marwen amplified this to an unbearable degree. Within the first half hour I’d burst into tears, so moved by the commitment of Mark’s friends to attending his trial and considering that my own friends would likely be just as supportive. But the Belgian Witch absolutely freaked me out, and I don’t mean that lightly. I could taste how anxious it was making me everytime that character entered a scene. A shot zooming into Mark’s bottle of pills led me to — for the first time in my life — looking at my phone in the cinema to google “Mark Hogancamp death”. Surely this PG-13 film wouldn’t feature a tragic overdose or suicide? I couldn’t risk how much that would have upset me.
Nope. Hogancamp is still alive and healthy. Phew.
But here comes that Belgian Witch again.
Welcome to Marwen is the first film I’ve walked out of early since the Belle and Sebastian musical God Help The Girl in 2014 (go figure). I only remember that “Bohemian Like You” by the Dandy Warhols started playing as I sprinted for the exit. Halfway between full consciousness and the headspace of a man about to faint, I left the cinema, walked straight to the bus stop and got on the bus. Five minutes later I would realise this was the wrong bus, and I ended up lost in the middle of Finglas for two hours. Dehydrated, frightened and embarrassed at how much Welcome to Marwen had scared me, I went home and cried.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, no reward, no payment, you could offer me that would make me finish watching Welcome to Marwen. I hate it. I hate everything about it. I never logged it on Letterboxd and I won’t be including it on my ranking of 2019 films. It wouldn’t be fair since I only saw two thirds. But also I somewhat want to boycott its very existence, save for this piece. Nothing is allowed to hurt me for no reason as much as Welcome to Marwen did.