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Categories: Movie Reviews

Marlies Janssens reviews Anton Corbijn’s James Dean biopic “Life” after its premiere at Bozar in Brussels.


On a rainy Monday night – September 21st, 2015 – I took the train to Bozar in Brussels, for one simple reason: the premiere of Life. The screening of the long-expected 4th feature film by the Dutch director Anton Corbijn, who is also a photographer by profession, was attended by the great man himself, after which he enthusiastically answered all of our burning questions.

The film depicts the friendship between the iconic 50’s actor James Dean (Dane DeHaan, star of Chronicle and Kill Your Darlings) and the photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson, Twilight). With the title of the film Corbijn refers to the US magazine for which Dennis Stock took pictures as a freelance photographer. Stock wanted his pictures of Dean to be more personal and not like those of the ‘red carpet maggots’. Therefore, he followed Dean to New York, Indiana and back to LA. Keep in mind that this all took place in the short period between East of Eden and Rebel Without a Case, after which Dean died at the age of 24.

The film seems divided in two parts, the first of which follows Stock, a very hardworking photographer, who almost has to stalk the slack, rebellious and egocentric Dean. The second part of the film, in which the two go for a trip to visit Dean’s Quaker family in Fairmont, Indiana, shows Dean open up, enjoying the little things in life, such as reading to his little cousin. There is then a reversal, and it is Stock who seems the arrogant and unthankful one, who forgets to actually ‘live’. Nonetheless, both of them are so self-fulfilled to think that they do each other a favour, Dean by posing for Stock and Stock by publishing pictures of him.

life (1)

As a Corbijn fan, I felt very much pleased with Life, but can’t deny that he made a serious mistake by casting Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock. Just like in every other film he acts in, his physical appearance remains static, and his acting is not really convincing due to his eternal poker face. Dane DeHaan on the other hand surprised me by showing some of his best method-acting skills. DeHaan has that cool aura that turns him into Dean – only, the slow, whispering speech made me wonder at times whether the real James Dean was a drunk with a never-ending hangover.

Unlike with his 2007 production Control, a biopic about the deceased Ian Curtis, lead singer of 80’s-band Joy Division, Corbijn shot this film entirely in colour. He told the audience at the premiere that although he initially wanted to shoot the film in black and white like Control, he eventually opted for full colour, to show the contrast with Stock’s original black and white images. Also worth noting is the accuracy of Corbijn’s film, namely how he manages to come close to copying Stock’s original and epic pictures of James Dean – for example, the well-known shot taken in Times Square in New York.


Did I already mention that Corbijn is a professional photographer? He is mostly known for his artist photography, such as for U2, Depeche Mode and Michael Stipe (R.E.M). This similarity caught my attention. Both photographers, Corbijn and Stock, have their own protégées and muses – a good motivation for Corbijn to tell the story of Dean’s relationship with Stock. By making Life, Corbijn wants to convince the audience how a photographer and his subject mutually inspire and construct one another. It is not plainly a biopic. And this is how he told it at the premiere in Bozar, the passion flowing from his enthusiastic smile.

One could also tell from the visual and aesthetic style of the film, that Corbijn is more than a filmmaker. Every shot simply looks like a perfect picture in a frame. Everything fits in, such as colours, composition and camera angle.

Life, simply, is a visual masterpiece. Enjoy the complexity of every shot, how it is built up in several layers yet seems so simple at the same time. The director’s passion for photography is clear, and for those who loved his former work, this film will be another pleasure to the eye.

Marlies Janssens

After graduating with an MA in Linguistics, I am currently completing an MA in Film Studies & Visual Culture at The University of Antwerp, Belgium. I have lived in Berlin for half a year and love to travel the world and meet new people. Beyond that ,culture is my biggest passion, ranging from film to music, photography, literature and theater. I have spent my entire youth on a stage: acting and dancing. In my spare time, I am always looking for new hotspots and checking out new films!

Posted on Oct 5, 2015

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