Welcome to Marwen
Welcome to Marwen doesn’t sit right with me. Though a technical marvel, the tonally irresponsible film tries to turn a real-life tragedy into an uplifting tale, and manages to miss all of the right emotions in the process.
The film is based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp (here played by Steve Carell), the victim of a terrible assault. In real life, Hogancamp was beaten nearly to death just outside a local bar after he discussed his love for wearing women’s shoes. Welcome to Marwen eventually gets around to addressing the attack, but instead chooses to focus on Hogancamp’s invasive PTSD and the miniature village he creates to express himself. Marwen (actually called Marwencol in real life) is an incredible scale model of a fictional Belgium village from World War II. Hogancamp put all of his energy into not only building the village, but populating it with a bevy of women who protect it from the lingering Nazi nuisance. According to the film, this is where Hogancamp processes all of his fantasies and issues with the real world, away from any actual human interaction.
Welcome to Marwen starts at a time of great upheaval in Hogancamp’s life. He’s being urged to testify at the sentencing of the men who beat him. A photography exhibit of Marwen is set to open soon in New York City, and a new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), has just moved in across the street. Did I mention his increasing pill addiction? By cramming so many elements into the plot, we’re artificially thrust through Hogancamp’s world, rather than allowed to linger within it and get to know him observationally. With so many elements coming together at once, any attempt at character development is done through telling us, rather than showing us who these players all are.
All of this leads to a film that’s unsure of how to strike an appropriate tone. Showing Hogancamp triumphing over his personal demons and accepting his shortcomings must look good on paper, but realizing that this is a real man, and not a contrived character, makes this victory feel disingenuous. Because the story is an outlandish, artificial construct, any semblance of the happy ending reflects that artifice. Though Hogancamp longs and loves, balancing his romantic success in Marwen with a cringeworthy incident in his regular life shows that the film is unsure of how to present the two worlds of this one man. He cannot be both things.
Were it not for the technological achievement, Welcome to Marwen would be an utter waste of time and energy. The animated sequences within the world of Marwen are truly fascinating to watch. The hybridization of life action onto plastic dolls, complete with articulated joints and seams from the factory’s molds, looks incredible. Beyond that, the sound design is a marvel as well. Though the world of Marwen feels real to Hogancamp, it never sounds like a real place to us. The thuds and clicks of the teeny village always remind us of its true scale.
Adapting a nonfiction life to screen is always a challenge, and certain liberties must be taken by filmmakers to keep the story entertaining for audiences. Real life is boring, and movies cannot be. However, Welcome to Marwen shows us that even when the story has been practically reinvented for the purposes of telling that story, it can still fail on all accounts.