The once-obscure town of Marwencol has now received nationwide attention. The 2010 documentary “Marwencol,” directed by Jeff Malmberg, won many awards but was never able to become a cultural touchstone. The incredible story, the intricate and delicate details, and the sincerely punishing profile of recovery and self-discovery were difficult to parse a clear message from, some tiny moral to take home and then forget about. When I found out they were making a feature film out of this dynamic narrative, I wrote about the trailer and the risks of making a mainstream film out of the complicated and difficult life of Mark Hogancamp. And then I saw the film.
And it’s all right.
“Welcome to Marwen” tells the story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), who was attacked outside of a bar by five men after he told them he cross-dressed. The attack resulted in Mark receiving such severe brain damage that he had to relearn his motor skills. Additionally, all of his memories from before the attack were erased from his mind.
After being discharged from the hospital early because of the high expense of therapy, Mark started making Marwencol, a miniature, fictional town in World War II-era Belgium, to help him relearn his motor skills and cope with his post-traumatic stress. Director Robert Zemeckis took inspiration from the documentary “Marwencol” but created and shaped a narrative that focuses on Mark himself and his anxiety around both the upcoming trial of his assailants and his first art exhibition after the attack.
We all grew up with Zemeckis films, and although some of the animation may be dated now (Anyone remember “Mars Needs Moms”?), each film was magical at the time. The worlds painted by him transport viewers into realms of wonder and surprising delight. Zemeckis’ work with animation is unmatched, and “Welcome to Marwen” is no exception. The use of scale alongside the playfulness in this craft is fantastic.
The sloshing buckets of milk, the precise and precious designs of the vehicles and weapons, and the soldiers turning stiff like actual action figures are breathtaking and exciting. The way Mark’s story is introduced through pictures in a scrapbook is skillful and innovative, and Carell plays the role with the awkward earnestness that’s become his mainstay. Each time memories from his trauma replay in his mind, it’s a tense explosion of sight and sound, a progressively louder and more uncomfortable experience that eventually becomes excruciating.
The standout scene in “Welcome to Marwen” comes about halfway through the film: Mark has found a new friend in his next-door neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann), who advises and aids Mark as the trial and art show quickly approach. Mark becomes infatuated with Nicol and, unwilling to see signs that his feelings are unrequited, he shows her pictures of his figures acting out a proposal and then proposes to her in real life. It’s incredibly awkward but powerful in that it finally shows that the real world and the world of Marwen are not as seamlessly connected as the first half of the film has the audience believe. This long, nerve-wracking shot is jarring and stands in stark contrast to the fast, quirky pace of the rest of the film. Carell, after being rejected, remains completely still, unable to process the gaps between his ideals and the real world.
In Mark’s art exhibit, he explains that the figures of Mark and Nicol get together in the world of Marwen, while Nicol leaves in real life. Mark then finally notices Roberta (Merritt Wever), his friend from the hobby shop who has always shown interest in him, and their romance begins to bloom. As much as the film touts itself as a movie where women play a prominent role, their purpose is really as vehicles of Mark’s own growth.
“Welcome to Marwen” is first and foremost a story about Hogancamp, while the many women around him simply end up as secondary characters. These half-baked resolutions at the end of the film fail, and they fail because the intricacies and contradictions of Mark’s life can’t be summed up in a simple maxim or overwrought metaphor. The ways he thinks about gender, sexuality, his own identity and therapy are complicated, and any quick gesture to sum it up only seems to sweep these complications under the rug — or into the toy box. Zemeckis paints Hogancamp’s story with gloss and glamour, making the figures stand out, smooth and brilliant. Even with all that beauty, it’s hard not to notice that the paint is peeling.
“Welcome to Marwen” is currently playing at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas.