The relationship between a photographer and a celebrity subject is a curious one. Part collaborative, part parasitic; part intimate, part exploitative. And then there’s the question of who’s exploiting whom: the photographer hoping to sell glimpses of the star’s private life for a quick buck? Or the star inviting the snapper into his confidence to use him in his own quest for glory?
As a rock-photographer-turned-director, Anton Corbijn – Control (2007), A Most Wanted Man (2014) – is in an excellent position to cast light on the nuances of this dynamic in his fourth feature film, Life, which explores the genesis of a series of photographs that Dennis Stock took of James Dean in early 1955 for Life magazine. A book of the photos – which capture Dean bumbling around in sunny LA, rainy New York and at his aunt and uncle’s house in rural Indiana – is being published to coincide with the film’s release and the 60th anniversary of Dean’s death.
It might seem like a slight topic for a drama, though perhaps less so given the obsession with celebrity and privacy in the current age. Corbijn also has two powerful leads working for his cause: Robert Pattinson as Stock, an interesting choice for a young man so painfully familiar with what it feels like to be on the other side of the lens; and model-cum-actor Dane DeHaan as Dean, himself a destined-for-greatness actor who plays Dean as less of a heartthrob, more of a weirdo, and all the more interesting for it.
Of course, the fact that Dean would be killed, aged 24, in a car crash later that same year, after he’d just filmed Rebel Without a Cause, the role that would make him an icon, loads everything with a certain poignancy. But Corbijn’s understated direction and measured pace (a final voiceover is the only misstep), Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s sublime cinematography and Owen Pallett’s sophisticated jazz soundtrack make for an incredibly beautiful, elegant piece of film-making that manages to be intriguing and thoughtful on its own quiet terms.
Life is out on 25 September