Dec 26

“Welcome to Marwen”: Unique Strategy

On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was attacked by five men and left for dead outside of a bar in Kingston, NY. After nine days in a coma, he awoke to find he had no memory of his previous adult life. He had to relearn how to eat, walk and write. True story behind Welcome to Marwen

Before Robert Zemeckis‘s new film Welcome to Marwen was the 2010 Marwencol, a highly acclaimed documentary that also depicted the story of Mark Hogancamp in a truer-to-life form.

What led to the life-destroying hate crime against Hogancamp? He’d “told a patron in a bar that he was a cross-dresser who liked to put on nylon stockings and heels” (Advocate).

Hogancamp happens to be a cross-dresser who’s heterosexual and doesn’t identify as transgender. However, states Ariel Sobel, The Advocate, “if Hogancamp had not survived the near-fatal attack he experienced for even talking about cross-dressing, his story would have resembled the many lives taken for not abiding by the societal rules of the gender binary.”

David Ehrlich, IndieWire, describes how Hogancamp created his own rehab program when health insurance no longer supported his needed care.

His solution? To create a rich fantasy world out of the 12-inch, 1:6 scale figures he once painted; a miniature town called Marwencol (located in Belgium circa World War II) in which he could re-enact his trauma in a refuge that was under his full control. A captain named Hogie became his pint-sized alter-ego, S.S. troops stood in for his assailants, and female dolls represented the various women in his life (Hogancamp even built a catfight bar for them to work in, as his version of the past assumed the feeling of a sweet, pulpy, and surprisingly asexual serial). The lifelike, hyper-expressive photographs he took of these scenes attracted some attention, and Hogancamp soon found himself celebrated as a naïve and enchanted outsider artist…

As Zemeckis portrays the women, included are “a loud Russian caretaker” (Gwendoline Christie), “a one-legged physical therapist” (Janelle Monáe), a coworker (Elza González), and his doll supplier (Merritt Wever), for starters. Plus two more special ladies:

Of course, the two most important women in Mark’s life are the one he hasn’t met yet, and the one he can’t seem to forget. First up is Nicol (Leslie Mann), a kind and curious soul who’s just moved in to the house across the street, and is trying to shake off a tragedy of her own. She also has a greasy and abusive ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson)…

Finally, there’s Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), the wicked witch of Marwen, who murders any of the gals who get too close to her man Hogie. The only character with no human counterpart, Deja broadly represents Mark’s loneliness, though ham-fisted writing and her pill-blue hair make her seem like a manifestation of the anti-depressants that he takes every morning.

Considering the decidedly mixed-to-worse critical reviews of Welcome to Marwen, perhaps the emotion-tugging trailer itself is preferable viewing:

Selected Reviews

Emily Yoshida, Vulture: “The Marwencol documentary saved the reveal of Mark’s cross-dressing as a third-act twist, possibly to its detriment. The least that can be said for Zemeckis’s adaptation is its willingness to embrace that queerness from the get-go.”

Greg Cwik, Slant: “The whole endeavor feels like a disservice to Hogancamp’s story, in no small part because no one in the film feels human, even outside doll form. Everyone is a type: the pitiable loser for whom we feel bad, the perfect love interest for whom we cheer, and so forth.”

Chris Nashawaty, “…(M)ost of the heartwarming power of Mark’s stranger-than-fiction story is AWOL in its Tinseltown makeover. Steve Carell plays Mark with an uneasy mix of cloying simpleton smiles and just-under-the-surface shell-shock terror that lands firmly on the side of schmaltz.”