Dark Star: HR Giger's World

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Dark Star: HR Giger's World
"No fan, no matter how devoted, will leave without having learned something new."

When he was six years old, says HR Giger, his father gave him his first human skull. He took it for walks along the street on a piece of string. It was the first of many macabre trappings he would come to surround himself with in a attempt to overcome his fear of death, in a life that would see him become one of his generation's most widely celebrated artists. He strokes the skull affectionately, like a favourite pet.

With such a subject, it's hard to go wrong, but director Belinda Sallin exceeds expectations by unravelling a story in which that famous art is almost incidental. Though it saturates the film, it reveals just one aspect of a complicated man whom we see here in much more detail, over dinners with his family, through his business collaborators, in his studio with beloved cat Müggi coiling round his legs. He speaks tearfully of the suicide of his first partner, Li. His mother in law talks about the questions she gets when explaining who her daughter is married to. Celtic Frost frontman Tom Gabriel Fischer talks about writing to him on the offchance after he won his Oscar for Alien, never expecting to hear back, and how Giger turned out to be the only person who took his music seriously and became his mentor. They sit around in black clothes chatting about sex and death beside smiling middle class Swiss women in comfortable jumpers. It's a picture of a family formed partly by blood, partly by happy accident, functioning beautifully in clear defiance of the rules.

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The Alien hovers on the sidelines; it isn't talked about much, but its power is greater because of its harbingers and reflections in the artwork we see elsewhere, like the images of Li in the demons, in the biomechanoids. Those drawn to this film because of it will discover a whole world of similarly intriguing imagery, whilst those already more familiar with the artist's work will be thrilled by the wealth of treasures on display. Giger seems to have kept everything. Even after a museum opens to display the famous works he wisely held onto or brought back, his house is still overwhelmed by piles of drawings, paintings, sculptures, notes. They're stacked up on shelves or simply on the floor at the sides of the hallway; they're hanging on the walls and stuffed into drawers. Sometimes, we are told, it would be impossible to get the front door open because a lion's spine was jammed against it (to be used in creating Sil for Species); once there was a carcass in the bath whose stench overwhelmed the whole house. Now the bath is back to normal - full of books.

Outside, in the garden, skulls and dead babies and strange spidery figures are everywhere, seemingly woven into the trees, inviting visitors to take a journey one of his friends describes as 'perinatal' - passing through a green birth canal to confront images of startling eroticism that trail into mortality. It's as if Giger's personality simply exploded outward, affecting everything he touched. There's enough here for a decade's worth of books and exhibitions.

The anecdotes with which the film is littered are just as rich, and there's a real warmth and humour, a love of life that will defy some viewers' expectations. No fan, no matter how devoted, will leave without having learned something new. As Giger died just a few weeks after this film was finished, it's essentially his obituary, and it's hard to imagine a better tribute. He wouldn't want to live again, he says in the finals scenes. He did everything he wanted to do, created everything he wanted to create. Sallin has captured it beautifully.

Reviewed on: 19 May 2015
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A documentary exploring the life and work of the Swiss artist made world famous by his work on the Alien films.

Director: Belinda Sallin

Writer: Belinda Sallin

Starring: HR Giger, Tom Gabriel Fischer, Müggi

Year: 2014

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Switzerland

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