(Switzerland, 95 min.)
Written and directed by Belinda Salin
Featuring: HR Giger, Carmen Maria Scheifele
If something seems alien about the work and world of Hans Reudi Giger, then Belinda Salin did her job just right. HR Giger, the late artist, is perhaps best known for his iconic creation of the aliens in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). His work deservedly won an Oscar, but there’s a lot more to his oeuvre than the one tall creepy thing that terrorized Sigourney Weaver. His art is dark and speculative, yet Salin captures a man who was perfectly normal in spite of the superficial abnormality of his work. Dark Star: HR Giger’s World leaves the audience wanting to learn how such a seemingly gentle man could create such seemingly morbid artwork.
Dark Star, which finished filming shortly before Giger’s death in 2014, offers a fair and modest tour through the home of the famed artist. Giger himself says little in the film, for his health is quite poor during the shoot. (At times, he barely seems aware of the shoot going on in his house.) Salin nevertheless observes Giger as he combs through his unwieldy mess of books, artwork, and paraphernalia (he’s a major hoarder) and occasionally comments on his life to illuminate some of the inspiration behind his work.
Fans looking to get a thorough odyssey into the world of Alien, though, might be disappointed. The film features a surprisingly brief chapter on this defining moment in Giger’s career and mostly looks at the creation of the creature through archival footage and drawings. It’s impressive work nevertheless and especially interesting to see the alien as an extension of a greater body of work.
Dark Star mostly benefits from the inclusion of Carmen Maria Scheifele, Giger’s widow, and Mia Bonzanigo, his ex-wife, who both provide ample insight into Giger’s idiosyncrasies. They open up places he doesn’t explore (and places that Salin is generally too reserved to approach) and give the most perspective on Giger as a man and a character. These interviews reveal his rise through fame and his peculiar, almost morbid habits of collecting skulls for art and letting them soak in the bathtub to be working ready. Giger himself only really becomes intimate when Salin asks him about Li Tobler, a past girlfriend who modelled for his work, who committed suicide in 1978. This one scene is the only glimpse into the dark places alluded to in the film’s title.
The images that of Giger’s artwork that Salin presents is intriguing, as Dark Star goes through a catalogue of bio-horror stuff that fuses the human body with technology and non-human traits. The highly symbolic pop-arty imagery of Giger’s world is both violent and subversively sexual, essentially a crossbreed of David Cronenberg and Margaret Keane. The film lets some members of Giger’s entourage elaborate on the technique and imagery, although most of their observations are self-evident as Salin and her crew pan across Giger’s work and cut to archival footage in which he creates the art. Perhaps the most provocative and interesting pieces are found outside Giger’s home and in his backyard where one friend takes Salin through a morbid Giger labyrinth that looks like a piece of art direction for True Detective.
Salin remains respectful throughout the film, and Dark Star doesn’t look too deeply into its subject or ask the bigger questions behind his work. A few talking heads raise point about the controversy of the artistic cannon, as Giger’s popularity makes him an outsider of sorts in the art world. As a reserved, superficial essay on the artistic process, however, Dark Star is serviceably watchable and probably a thrill for his devoted fans.
Giger’s world actually isn’t very dark or morbid, despite the dim lighting of his abode and presence of the black shirt that he wears in every single shot. Either the man never changed or Salin shot the film in one day, which might be the most provocative question of the film. Dark Star probably has enough material to make a better thirty-minute short, since Giger himself isn’t much of a character. Salin nevertheless captures a man who seems perfectly ordinary and lives a completely normal life as any other working artist does. The normalcy and lack of darkness are the film’s biggest surprises.
Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Dark Star: HR Giger’s World screened in Ottawa at The Mayfair and screens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox.
Catch more of Giger’s work when The Mayfair screens Alien later this week!