Experimental Reviews

Icon (2019) – 4 stars

Director: Guillaume Versteeg

Cast: Alicia Verdú Macián, Daniel Barkan, Gaülli Stam

Running time: 6mins

Being an icon might be important to you, those around you, or society as a whole; but God knows it can be tough! Just ask candles in the wind Marilyn Monroe and Lady Di. An archive of Marilyn Monroe’s diaries, poems and letters published about ten years ago gave insight into the often torturous pressures which come with the territory.

A write-up of the collection by Sam Kashner later wrong about the collection in Vanity Fair:

A 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe was taking an amateur theatre class in New York, when the teacher asked her to do a sense memory exercise – a common theatre technique where an actor takes a memory and brings every sight, smell and sense of it to life through actions. A nervous Monroe couldn’t help but speak about her feelings, and eventually spiraled into an emotional breakdown after being reminded to focus just on her senses. This was Marilyn Monroe – a young, shy woman with insecurities. But this wasn’t “Marilyn Monroe.

“A few blocks away, above Loew’s State Theater, at 45th and Broadway, there was the other Marilyn—the one everyone knew—52 feet tall, in that infamous billboard advertising Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, a hot blast from the subway grating causing her white dress to billow up around her thighs, her face an explosion of joy.”

To the world, this was Marilyn Monroe – a symbol of all that is feminine and playful. An icon. Somewhere along the way, a young, beautiful and talented woman trying her best in the world lost her agency. She was trapped in a symbol, and was held to it no matter how tired or stuck she felt. For many, this was the root of many an emotional and psychological struggle that she fought in her lifetime.

It’s easy to read into experimental cinema, particularly when it’s distinctly minimalistic. No doubt, you may find that the graceful movements depicted in Icon tell an entirely different story, but to me, watching Guillaume Versteeg’s film, I couldn’t help but feel for the person at the centre of it all – the titular Icon herself.

The film centres on an intricate dance performance, with mesmerising, dynamic choreography depicting how an icon is established, decorated, and put on display for the world to see. Everyone in the film is busy, except The Icon. While those around her adopt her motif, but are free to act, to move, to create, she seems trapped at the centre of it all, weighed down by the responsibility of being the foundation that inspires an entire brand of behaviour.

Having created The Icon; an adoring public help to shape it, before bowing down to it – but there is something sinister in their apparent adoration. In the behaviour of those idolising The Icon, there is a glaring contradiction between veneration and control.

For an example of what I mean, take how Princess Diana was treated before and after her death – particularly in relation to the institution of the British monarchy. The UK’s royal family remains popular among the country’s population, and most will happily bow down to the royal family and accept their symbolic position – but only if they forego their individuality to fit within the box that forms the public’s perception of the ideal monarch. That was at the heart of Princess Diana’s struggle, and has more recently also of Meghan Markle’s harassment by the British establishment.

This is also the struggle that Icon depicts. No doubt, The Icon and all the behaviour inspired by it are things of beauty, as depicted by the enthralling movements, costumes and make up of Versteeg’s performers – but there is something else going on here. There is a very unhealthy relationship being formed, with the turning a human life into a consumable commodity, which – as we routinely see amid notable ‘fandoms’ – its public could turn upon the moment it exerts any agency it deems improper. If they don’t break off this relationship, the person at the centre of it all is often suffocating. It might be worth taking a moment to re-evaluate our expectations from the icons in our lives, in the broader context of humanity – and Icon should be commended for having conjured up ideas like that without the use of any dialogue.

On a technical basis, I should like to take this opportunity to appreciate the unique mix of traditional costume with modern lighting effects and music, all rounded up by the constant flash of cameras that exemplifies what life is like in the spotlight. At the same time, the film does encounter some problems with pacing. The piece is slow, and I can’t help but feel that a film half its six-minute run-time could have told the same story. From a purely crowd-pleasing perspective then, it might not be concise or action-packed enough to keep the attention of the average viewer. But since when has that been the goal of experimental cinema?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an ‘icon’ is “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.” The statement in itself reflects a curious irony – how the actions or influence of a person are what makes them worthy of veneration, at which point their purpose becomes being a symbol, in all of its passivity. Guillaume Versteeg’s five-minute experimental piece might be a film of few words, but it still manages to embody this irony. The choreography is beautiful, executed to near perfection, while the background score held me by the hand – ultimately meaning its message also comes across loud and clear.

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