Friday, October 05, 2007


“Get a taste in my mouth
As desperation takes hold
Is it something so good
Just can’t function no more”?
(Love Will Tear Us Apart)

As a depressive suicidal soul it is no surprise I like Joy Division. I first heard Love Will Tear Us Apart when I was around 10 it was the upbeat intro and melody that captured my attention (I was 10 so didn’t really understand the lyrics). I tried to master that intro on my guitar along with the intro to This Charming Man by The Smiths.

It is strange but when I think of Joy Division I see them in black and white never colour, many of these pictures were taken by Anton Corbijn. He has also directed the film Control based on the book by Deborah Curtis, Touching From A Distance.

The film is exquisite to watch as b/w does give softer images and is much more subtle than colour. We first see a young Ian Curtis in his final years at school holed up in his bedroom, like any average teenager, listening to David Bowie miming along to lyrics while dancing in from of the mirror. We see him meet Deborah, going to gigs, working at what is now the Job Centre, and meeting 3 young men in a pub who have set up a band but can’t find a singer. After watching the Sex Pistols Ian offers himself as the lead singer and Warsaw is born (later known as Joy Division). The story revolves around Ian’s relationship with Deborah, the gigs, interaction with other band members and later, the epilepsy and Annik, the woman he has an affair with.

There has been criticism that film doesn’t really explore the reasons why Curtis hanged himself. I think it does. It paints a picture of a man caught between two conflicting lifestyles. The image of conformity where he’s married with a child and works in an ordinary full-time job, the other lifestyle that is kicking against the traces, subverting the norm. There is a scene where Curtis is going to work, walking down an average street smoking a cigarette and as the camera pans back we see the word “Hate” on the back of this jacket.

These two lifestyles converge and the immense feeling of being trapped is starting to become apparent. Curtis loves the freedom of breaking away from family life where he enters different worlds and where he meets Annik, a "free and independent woman". Million miles away from his life with Deborah in Macclesfield. The clash of these two conflicting lifestyles, increases his isolation, desolation and desperation coupled with his epilepsy where he is prescribed 4 or 5 different kinds of medications and the side-effects are staggering. There’s the realisation he will always have epilepsy, and having no control over his life pushes Curtis over the edge. His lyrics express these inner turmoils and demons.

It is interesting that Deborah (portrayed well by Samantha Morton) starts off attending the gigs and is always in the front but as Joy Division becomes famous she is further in the background where finally she is sitting at home with baby Natalie waiting for the phone to ring. The world where she is excluded from is a very male place where wives/girlfriends are kept at a distance. When she does intrude she is treated as if she is an embarrassment. Deborah propped him up and supported him and he admits in a scene in the film that he wouldn’t be anything without her.

Curtis is too overwhelmed with his own problems that he sees Deborah as a reason for him feeling trapped with a young baby but he doesn’t seem to understand that she too is trapped and constrained by the home environment. He is the one who believed they should marry and have a baby. This does convey an imbalance, riddled with the usual norms about how women should behave, the usual sexist double-standards.
Towards the end of the film we see Deborah asserting her own independence such as wearing short skirts (he didn't like her wearing them) and driving a car etc. I know the film focuses on Ian Curtis but we don’t glimpse the hopes, desires and needs of Deborah so in many ways her character isn’t as shaped and developed as Curtis.

He can’t make up his mind between Deborah and Annik. He can’t have both. The realisation that as Joy Division grew and became more famous the pressures and the feeling of powerless increased for Curtis. The increased drinking and not taking his medication increased the spiral downwards into the abyss. And before his death Joy Division was on the verge of touring the States and therefore more pressures.

Ian Curtis felt trapped in his life and saw no way out. So he killed himself. His daughter, Natalie, believes he was let-down by the NHS.

“My father also suffered from mood swings and depression. You read about mental health services being cut now, but God knows what it must have been like in the late 70s. There were loads of side-effects to his medication. It's likely that the epilepsy and the medication would have exacerbated the depression, although there was no provision for dealing with this”.

The likes of Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Sarah Kane and Richey Edwards (presumed dead) to name but a few sought solace from their inner demons and emotional pain through the act of suicide. Around 19,000 people aged between 15 -24 years have attempted suicide while 700 of them are successful. And 90% have mental distress.

The film is utterly beautiful and stylized. Sam Riley as Ian Curtis is electrifying especially during the gigs scenes (the lighting on Curtis' face gives it a chiaroscuro effect) where he perfects Curtis’ baritone voice. He displays a physical and emotional sense of isolation and alienation. The way he emulates Curtis’ dazed and stoned manner (possible side-effects from medication) the erratic dance style that was sometimes a seizure are memorable as they are realistic. Sam Riley really deserves accolades for this moving portrayal.

Samantha Morton portrays Deborah as the concerned and loving wife who is moving away from Ian’s world and love indeed is tearing them apart. She is touching from a distance. She is physically and emotionally excluded from Ian's world. It is passionate yet painful to watch. Overall this film gives a seemingly honest account of the rise of a gifted songwriter who couldn’t cope with life or its excess pressures. A prisoner in his own mind and the only escape is through suicide.

Maybe that was the only way for Curtis to exert some control. The end scene shows smoke rising from the crematorium and for me that represents Ian Curtis symbolically being freed at last. It is a beautifully crafted upbeat and uplifting (also there are some fine tragicomic scenes) film with realistic portrayals of people caught in a trap. An exercise in human fragility and frailty that we can probably relate to, the contradictions and conflicts that can trap us all in everyday life.

And I have been listening to Unknown Pleasures and Closer whilst writing this review.

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