7th 10 - 2013 | no comment »

CIFF 2013: Papusza (2013)

Directors/Coscreenwriters: Joanna Kos, Krzystof Krauze

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This seems to be the year for biopics among the Polish entries to the Chicago International Film Festival. Wałęsa: Man of Hope is a stimulating look at the life of the working-class electrician who went on to make huge changes in Polish society and receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Papusza is a much different film about a much different person, a published poet of Romy-Polish descent named Bronisława Wajs. Papusza, which means “doll” in Romy, was born in 1908 and died in 1987, thus making her a witness to both world wars, the occupation of Poland by the Soviets, and the forced settlement of the nomadic Romy in permanent homes. That she learned to read and write is remarkable in itself. That her poetry found a wide audience and acclaim in Poland and other countries is a near miracle. Yet, unlike Lech Wałesa, her life did not change for the better, and the hardships she suffered as a Romy woman dogged her to the end of her life.

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The film begins in 1971, when the assistant to the Polish cultural minister goes to a prison where Papusza (Jowita Budnick) is incarcerated. A performance of her poetry set to music is about to take place, and the assistant tells the warden that she will not tell the minister that the guest of honor can’t attend because she stole a chicken. After securing Papusza’s release, the women get in a car that will take them to the venue. We flash back to 1909, to a young, pregnant Romy who walks through a muddy street and out to a meadow. She lays down and yells for her mother, followed by a baby’s cries. The scene cuts to the new mother cradling her child and giving her the name Papusza. A fortune teller says the child will live a momentous life, but she cannot say whether it will be one of greatness or despair. In fact, it will be both.

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The film jumps to 1949. Papusza’s much older husband, Dionizy Wajs (Zbigniew Walerys), watches as his friend and harp tuner Czernecki (Artur Steranko) rows across a lake, harp upright in the boat, to the Romy camp. He asks Wajs to hide a young man who is on the run from the police. Wajs is reluctant to take in a gadjo (outsider), but he owes Czernecki the favor. The man, Jerzy Ficowski (Antoni Pawlicki), is a writer who travels with the Romy for two years, until he learns the warrant for his arrest has been vacated. He becomes a natural companion for Papusza, who, we learn in another flashback, got a Jewish woman to teach her to read and write when she was of school age. “Little Brother” encourages Papusza to write down the poetry she composes orally. Once he gets established in Warsaw, he collects the poems for publication. By this time, the Wajses and others in their camp have been forced to abandon traveling and have settled in a slum in a small Polish town.

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The film’s scrambled chronology keeps us waiting to see what is only mentioned in the 1949 section—the extermination of the Jews and Romy by the Nazis. We see little graphic violence, but the Romy are clearly being hunted. The Wajses and some of their camp hide in the woods in dugouts covered by leaf mats; Papusza ventures out of her hole and into a barn where a group of Romy have been herded and killed. She finds a baby crying, almost an echo of her own birth, and brings the boy back to Wajs as the son they haven’t been able to conceive. Later, when Papusza is shunned by the Romy for helping Jerzy share their secrets with other gadjo in his book The Gypsies in Poland, written in Polish and Romy, her son disavows her as his mother because he is a foundling.

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There is a great deal more to the film, filled with details of Romy life, that make it seem more interested in Ficowski’s work than in telling the story of a remarkable woman. In many ways, the approach is intriguing. The beauty of the lush black-and-white cinematography brings both a harshness to Romy life, particularly when they are cooped up in their tenement, and the romance and beauty of the open road and living in nature. We see a Romy orchestra play at a posh event in the 1920s, reminiscent of how African Americans were allowed to entertain white Americans, but were persecuted outside the performance arena.

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The superstitions of the Romy come out in everything from fortune telling to pouring wine on the ground before drinking. The subjugation of Romy women to their men is shown in the segregation of the sexes, the commonplace of child brides, and a king making rulings for the entire community. Wajs threatens Papusza with a beating when she says she is not a poet and will not attend the state performance in her honor, and it’s clear this is a default position for him.

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As much as I enjoyed looking at this film and learning about how the Romy lived during most of the 20th century, I kept looking for Papusza and her poetry to take center stage. Her art was barely quoted, and her life was massed in with the rest of the Romy, to the point where, despite a great performance by Budnik, it seemed like her husband was the main character. We do see her grieving over her marriage to a man 25 years older than she and falling for Jerzy. She is put in a mental hospital at one point, something that seems to go with the territory when a woman tries to do something her society finds offensive, like speak for herself through her art (see Séraphine [2008] for more on this type of narrative). But this film doesn’t really get at the heart of the woman who made such a deep impression on Ficowski and the outside world. She just becomes more abject and poor, doomed and demented, setting her poems on fire on her kitchen table and begging for a few złotys in her old age in exchange for a tarot reading. She becomes a figure of pity when she should have been someone women could look to for inspiration. While I can encourage people to see this film for the richness of its imagery and scope of its story, both of which might have been meant to evoke Papusza’s writing, if you want to know who Papusza is, read her poetry.

Papusza screens Wednesday, October 16, 6:25 p.m, Thursday, October 17, 5:30 p.m., and Friday, October 18, 2:455 p.m., and at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Actress Jowita Budnik is scheduled to attend all three screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

The Verdict: The Belgian criminal justice system is put on trial when a man who was denied justice for his murdered wife takes the law into his own hands and dares a jury to convict him of premeditated murder. (Belgium)

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)

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1st 10 - 2013 | 1 comment »

CIFF 2013: Wałęsa: Man of Hope (Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei, 2013)

Director: Andrzej Wajda

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The biopic genre is one that most film fans approach with a certain amount of caution. Rarely are they historically accurate, and oftentimes, they fall into a template that seems to predestine their subjects with a greatness that separates them from the pack almost by birthright. Poland’s greatest living filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda, most recently made a 2010 documentary tribute to his own cinematographer Edward Kłosińsk, thus setting him up nicely to approach the momentous life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. While largely complimentary to the still-living, elder statesman of the working class, Wajda’s biopic moves meticulously through the major events of Wałęsa’s life with a bracing veracity and the perfect pacing of a master craftsman.

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Wajda chooses an interesting framing device for his survey of Wałęsa’s history—an interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (Maria Rosaria Omaggio). The screenplay makes clear that it is not the interview she conducted for her 1977 book Interview with History, but rather one following the success of the Solidarity movement. Fallaci, a probing, sometimes confrontational interviewer, challenges Wałęsa (Robert Wieckiewicz) about the appropriateness of accepting comfortable housing from the government, testing whether fame and power will corrupt the people’s leader with this and other questions that check his level of hubris. Wałęsa waves off the concern, and when we see throughout the film how many months he spent in prison from the time he witnessed the 1970 massacre of dock workers in Gdansk to the 1980 lockdown strike he led at the shipyard and beyond, it’s clear that government housing of one kind or another has long been a part of Wałęsa’s life.

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His story begins on the eve of his first arrest in 1970. Working as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard and expecting the birth of his first child (the film chronicles the arrival of six of the eight children the Wałęsas have), he learns a labor action is about to commence. He feels his place is at the dock, where he ends up trying to stop the workers to prevent the killings that follow, gets arrested, and is released only after promising to spy for the government, a pledge he soon fails to keep. Before he leaves, he removes his wedding ring and watch with instructions to his wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska) to sell them if he doesn’t come home; this wholly inadequate substitute for a wage-earning husband becomes a running routine throughout the film, as Wałęsa’s growing involvement in the emerging Polish labor movement leads to more and more absences and the loss of one job after another because of his activism.

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Wałęsa seems to know how to talk to people to get them to listen—he tells Fallaci that the right words just come. He also is a practical man who knows how to negotiate and win. When he falls in with a group of intellectuals who are talking about staging a hunger strike, he asks them forthrightly what good their starvation will do. It’s not practical, it won’t get results, he says, and he’s right. The movement was far from unified at that point, and few would have cared about their sacrifice. At the same time, however, Wałęsa feels the intellectuals can help him craft language and strategies; he’s not anti-intellectual, only pro-results. His agreement with the police teaches him never to sign anything, advice he passes on to other activists.

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The major set-piece of the film is the 1980 lockdown strike. The action begins before Wałęsa is in the shipyard, and the police are hellbent on keeping him from getting in. He manages to slip away, but is only a few meters ahead of his pursuers when he manages to climb over the fence to join the workers. He quickly organizes them, and word of the strike reaches throughout Poland, where transportation workers, miners, and others join them in a general strike. Wałęsa has secured several modest demands for the dock workers, but when a trolley car driver begs him not to abandon them by ending their strike, the gates to the shipyard are closed again as the Solidarity movement wins major concessions from the government, including having their union legalized. This section is nail-bitingly brilliant, as Wałęsa appears to be improvising his way to a revolution of sorts.

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Things look bad for Solidarity, however, when the Soviets decide to flex their muscles by declaring martial law in 1981 and outlawing the union. Wałęsa is imprisoned for nearly a year, but the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 brings an end to martial law. In 1983, Wałęsa wins the Nobel Prize, but fearing exile, he sends Danuta to accept it. Wadja uses stock footage of Brezhnev’s funeral, but dramatizes part of Danuta’s delivery of Lech’s acceptance speech and shows the humiliation she suffers when she is stripped for a full body-cavity search by Polish customs officials at the airport.

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Wadja is a crowd-pleaser with this film, bringing an energetic mise-en-scène to the Gdansk shipyards and Wałęsa’s crowded home filled with children and union activists. He shorthands relationships, particularly that between Danuta and Lech, with homey touches like the ring and watch and a handmade “typhus” sign he proposes to hang on their door to keep the world away. Wieckiewicz seems to channel Wałęsa’s natural leadership and charisma, portraying a perfect man of action who seemed driven to make the changes he did despite the hardships to himself and his family, particularly as communicated by Grochowska. Important events that helped strengthen the movement, not the least of which was having the Polish Pope John Paul II come home to preach to the faithful, show how one man does not a movement make, though Wieckiewicz makes it clear that Wałęsa was not a terribly humble man. His homophobia is not included in this film, which ends before his pronouncements on homosexuality were made publicly, but Wadja avoids—just barely—straight hagiography simply by letting the events speak for themselves.

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As a Chicagoan whose city has the largest population of Poles of any city other than Warsaw, I remember well seeing the Solidarity flags and banners waving up and down Milwaukee Avenue, the main drag of Polish Chicago, during the 1980s. Wałęsa, thus, is a part of my personal history and a figure of great interest to me. But in these times of union-busting and worker exploitation, it would be a great salvo against corporate elites if this film opened widely and played to sold-out audiences. I highly recommend that CIFF attendees fire the first shot by selling out every showing of this highly entertaining and instructive film from one of cinema’s grand masters.

Wałęsa: Man of Hope shows Friday, October 11, 5:30 p.m., Sunday, October 13, 2:15 p.m., and Wednesday, October 16, 3:20 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)


28th 09 - 2011 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2011: George the Hedgehog (Jeż Jerzy, 2011)

Directors: Tomasz Leśniak, Jakub Tarkowski, and Wojtek Wawszczyk

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Hollywood has been making comic book movies for a long time, and the pace has reached frenzied proportions in the last few years. Much of this product is watered down, mindless, and badly executed, a disappointment to fans of the comics and of films alike. Well, here’s one film made from a comic book I can unreservedly recommend, and it’s the very first animated feature of a comic book to come out of Poland. As a film, George the Hedgehog carries on in the raunchy, irreverent, edgy tradition of such classics as Fritz the Cat and television’s The PJs. Yet, the script is pure Hollywood comedy-action cinema at its best.

In a grungy underground lab, a mad scientist (Grzegorz Pawlak) is feeding American pop culture images and sounds into a computer. The scientist hopes to develop a clone that will be a surefire superstar, win him the respect of the scientific community that has scorned him, oh, and garner him fame and fortune, too. The computer runs like a slot machine through hundreds of possible models and stops on the image of a hedgehog. A hedgehog? Well, the computer can’t be wrong. The scientist sends his assistant (Jaroslaw Boberek) to find the animal and get some DNA.

As it happens, there is a hedgehog in town, a beer-guzzling, skateboarding, womanizing slacker named George (Borys Szyc). He is having an affair with the beautiful blonde Yola (Maria Peszek), who is bored with her nerdy husband but can’t divorce him because she’s Catholic. He is also set upon regularly by Stefan (Marcin Sosnowski) and Zenek (Michal Koterski), unemployed neo-Nazis who pick on him because they can’t get all the women he can.

The assistant notices Stefan and Zenek and offers them a substantial amount of money to grab some blood, saliva, and quills from the hedgehog. He also instructs them to kill George, something they are reluctant to do because he is the only target in the neighborhood they can stomp for being different. In a comic fight, George defends himself with his skateboard, but Zenek bites his ass to draw blood, and Stefan collects his drool and quills. Leaving George to lick his wounds, the pair takes their “harvest” to the scientist who drops it into a machine that whirls him out a clone of George—a vulgar moron who vomits and farts profusely and humps anything in sight. The scientist sets his scheme in motion by shooting a music video of clone George and turning his hedgehog into an Internet sensation and Polish pop hero. But the real George will have to be dealt with sooner or later.

Hypersexed animals and gross-out jokes aren’t my usual cup of tea, but when they are mixed with pointed satire and killer animation, I’m all about it. George the Hedgehog, stripped of the local and timely topical humor of the comic book, takes on bigger fish and fries them black in a way that a worldwide audience can understand. For instance, the idea that a hedgehog could be an international internet star makes perfect sense in the era of YouTube sensations Surprised Kitty (54.2 million views and counting) and Maru (11 million views for just one of his videos). In another example, a sleazy politician (Leszek Teleszynski), who on first glance reminded me very much of Mayor Richard J. Daley (with Chicago being the city with the second-largest Polish population in the world, I have to wonder if this was more than a coincidence), hitches his wagon to the hedgehog to court the youth vote and affects rapper gestures. Anyone who has watched the steady parade of politicians on Letterman, Conan O’Brien, The Colbert Report, and similar shows will recognize the tactic and, if they haven’t given it much thought, become aware that they are being marketed to, not served.

The intelligentsia get a thorough drubbing as they pontificate on a talking-heads program about the bravery of clone George’s performance art—actually surveillance camera footage of him breaking into a sex shop, puncturing with his quills the blow-up doll he starts to screw, and burning the whole place down, thus releasing anatomically correct blow-up dolls to float like fantasy helium balloons over the city. While clone George’s performance had nothing to do with art, the flying dolls are really quite beautiful.

In an interview on Badass Digest, director Wawszczyk said the animators used a cut-out style of animation, or what was pioneered by UPA in the States as limited animation. Unlike the relatively simple cartoons I’ve seen using limited animation, the complexity of the background layering and detail work on the moving figures is very intricate in George the Hedgehog, both grotesque and beautiful.

The send-ups of Hollywood films are many. For example, the showdown between George and clone George at a stadium-style rock concert plays like a cross between the climaxes of Black Sunday and Valley Girl. George’s battles with Stefan and Zenek use the same type of slo-mo found in the Matrix movies. The filmmakers are also inordinately fond of car crashes, starting with a doozy when two policewomen who recur throughout the film see George drinking a beer on a public median strip and run across a busy street to ticket him, causing a major pile-up as drivers try to avoid hitting the women.

The focus on the inconsequential, on celebrity, that had Americans in a lotus eaters’ haze through the past two or three decades has infected Poland as well, only 20 years after throwing off the yoke of Soviet oppression. A truly free and anarchic soul like George exemplifies the genuine pleasures and possibilities of that new sense of freedom, but the creators of George the Hedgehog suggest that Poles are more interested in off-the-truck knock-offs.

George the Hedgehog will screen Friday, October 14, 10:45 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 10:45 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)


4th 06 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Famous Firsts: A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Andrjez Wajda, director

By Roderick Heath

The agonies of the Second World War were, inevitably, a critical subject for Poland’s filmmakers after the war. Andrjez Wajda, who would become one of the country’s most admired and awarded filmmakers, emerged in the mid-1950s and reestablished Poland’s national cinema—at least as far as the rest of the world was concerned—with his epic “War Trilogy” about the travails of Polish partisans. His interest in the milieu was highly personal, having lost loved ones in the grand calamity, and his films are shot through with ironies, paying a certain lip-service to the triumph of the communists over the Nazis when his father had been executed along with thousands of other Polish army officers by the Russians. A Generation, featuring a teenaged Roman Polanski in the cast, certainly encapsulates the crucial mix of burgeoning energy in the postwar generation and its collectively haunted sensibility. Based on the autobiographical novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also scripted A Generation, the film is as much noir thriller and coming-of-age tale as it is a war movie. The most affecting and original quality of A Generation, and its most influential aspect on subsequent decades of similar movies, is the way it manages without much sentimentalising to depict the regulation rites of passage of a young man in the context of an awesome, consuming struggle.

The central exemplar of the title generation is Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki), a slum brat edging into manhood in the context of the German occupation. At the outset he’s seen engaged in a competition of knife tricks with his friend, the more handsome and accomplished Kostek (Zbigniew Cybulski). But when Stach, Kostek, and Zyzio (Ryszard Ber) go about their favourite sport of stealing hunks of coal from the moving trains that pass by their shanty town, Zyzio is shot by a German guard, and Kostek runs off. Stach has to abandon Zyzio’s body on the train and jumps off, too. In a quietly mourning and confused state, he meets amongst abandoned brickworks Grzesio (Ludwik Benoit), an injured, homeless veteran who introduces him to some working men in a tavern. They offer to get him an apprenticeship at a nearby woodworking factory. He replaces Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who’s just graduated as a journeyman, and whilst worked hard as a flunky around the factory perpetually fetching pots of glue for the craftsmen, he also finds friends, including Jasio and Mundek (Polanski), and is taken under the wing of communist coworker Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz). Everyone at the factory is involved in something on the sly: some are smuggling, and others are members of two competing groups of resistance fighters. The boss (Janusz Sciwiarski) both gladhands the Germans who buy bunks for soldiers from him and funnels money to the resistance, and he’s especially nervous because of some of his workers who belong to the noncommunist army are keeping a load of weapons in his storerooms. Stach discovers a pistol from this stash, and when he’s inspired by Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a girl who makes an appeal to students on behalf of the resistance, starts moving toward becoming an underground warrior.

Whilst A Generation is clearly a product of a particular cultural moment and heightened artistic sensibility, it’s also a young film school brat’s ode to cinema. As such, it anticipates any number of neophyte directorial works from the likes of Breathless (1959) to Reservoir Dogs (1992), in trying to enthusiastically blend an observational tone, based on personal experience and sensibility, with a narrative mediated through generic quotes. A Generation is spotted with visual and story quotes from such canonical gangster films as Angels with Dirty Faces (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), and White Heat (1949), but blended with a terse, ambient approach to emotion and action reminiscent more of Roberto Rossellini and neorealism in general. There are the early petty crimes, the confederacy of the spurned, doomed outsiders, and the final “big heist.” There’s also a lot of the attitude characteristic of eastern European literary traditions of the coming-of-age tale. Stach goes through familiar rituals of becoming a man: finding a community of working men and learning a trade, being schooled in the unfairness of capitalist economics by Sekula, and meeting, romancing, and finally losing his virginity to Dorota. Dorota appears as a proverbial dream girl with a touch of the warrior that makes her all the more sexy and alluring, a valkyrie on a pushbike, as well as symbolising the call to arms of an elevated, politically radical creed.

Jerzy Lipman’s superbly clear, unaffected cinematography helps Wajda keep the world he presents lucid and contiguous yet frosted with the lightest edge of a semi-abstract menace in places, be it in the cheerily busy confines of the factory or in the eerily quiet streets. Wajda presents twinning moments when the battered remnants of defeated armies appear to the heroes, lurching out of or disappearing back into shadows like spirits to urge the commitment of the living, with an edge bordering on expressionism. The film’s first image, a long panning shot behind the opening credits depicting an industrial wasteland dotted by shacks that prove to be a resilient kind of community, possesses an anticipatory quality as well as an analytical one. One can sense the early impulses of the kind of modernism fascinated by the expressive possibilities inherent in superficially dead places and cinematic frames that filmmakers like Antonioni and Polanski himself would expand upon, even as the texture of Wajda’s subsequent film looks back as much as it looks forward. Later on, cityscapes, with their sparse, eerie, drab multiplicities of concrete and brick, begin to entrap and terrorise the characters with Kafkaesque efficiency, particularly in a climactic suspense sequence, and the horrors of the repression of the Warsaw Ghetto are conveyed only by rolling blankets of smoke glimpsed over high walls, and over a fairground operating in blithe ignorance.

Wajda’s influence on both the French and British New Waves is hard to estimate, but certain. Reportedly, A Generation was a favourite film of British director Lindsay Anderson, and aspects of it are encoded in the DNA of Anderson’s If…. (1968), inevitably recalling the images of youth in violent uprising. Indeed, Wajda’s vision seems, oddly enough, to present his “generation” as a distinct youth movement, politically aware, radicalised, and ill at ease with the status quo. A Generation possesses a contextual awareness that is rich and feels less related to the quality of many ’50s English-language war films, which viewed war as a way to restore stability and the status quo rather than as a process of dynamic reconstruction. In this regard, it’s striking and thought-provoking that Wajda, considering his history, presents here a tale in which the communist guerrillas are depicted as being in competition with a villainous nationalist underground whose representatives in the factory are the most unpleasant and insensitive—one makes a sarcastic crack about the “Yids” finally bothering to fight when the Ghetto revolts—and who finally threaten Stach in a manner indiscernible from any Gestapo thug.

The youths fight war with the trappings and disguises of the everyday, and familiar experiences of the young are all sharpened and heightened by war. The underclass heroes take delight in how the war gives their impulses to anarchic acts of violence and crime social legitimacy. This is at first basic, as Stach describes himself somewhat sarcastically as a “real patriotic thief” in stealing from the coal trains. The long opening shot presents the veritable wasteland on the edge where Stach has grown up, and his manner of dress, with a jacket spotted with dozens of patches, seems like something almost out of prehistory. Stach evolves, as do the film’s visuals, from the fringes to becoming the representative for the continuation of a culture of resistance. The initial decrepit isolation Stach suffers living alone with his mother (Hanna Skarzanka) gives way to slowly developing, almost familial relationships, as the value of community is both emphasised and even promoted by the wartime setting. The younger characters are contrasted with older ones, like the paternal, knowing Sekula, and Jasio’s talkative but pathetic father (Stanislaw Milski), who works in the factory as a night watchman but who’s being forcibly retired. He was a former soldier himself, a veteran of the Tsar’s army, who was posted in Manchuria when he was his son’s age. Stach finally decides to take action after a vividly personal humiliation: Having picked up a load of lumber, he had an altercation with a grumpy gate guard, who took revenge by falsely reporting Stach for stealing to the German reservist officer or “Werkschutz” (Kazimierz Wichniarz) supervising the lumber yard. Stach was beaten and hounded out by laughing Germans, and the enraged Stach talks his young friends into assassinating Werkschutz when he visits his favourite local prostitute. The boys pull off this mission, though it’s Jasio who does the actual killing.

Whilst Stach is the narrative’s focus, Wajda eventually seems more interested in the conflicted Jasio, who prefigures the existential angst of Zbigniew Cybulski’s character in Ashes and Diamonds (1956). Torn about the risks to his hard-won place in the proper working class and leaving his father without his income, Jasio, initially hysterically proud of himself for shooting the German, is actually the first of the young lads to test his mettle and discover the terrible ambivalence of murder for patriotism’s sake. Later, when he anxiously decides to opt out of helping Stach and the others when Sekula asks them to help in getting people out of the Jewish ghetto during the uprising, he has a haunting encounter with Abram (Zygmunt Hobot), a Jewish friend who used to live in the same building as Jasio and who escaped the battle consuming the ghetto, covered in soot and filth. When Jasio seems uneasy about the prospect of him hiding out there, Abram promptly leaves, deciding to head back to the battle. Jasio, in a sudden flurry of fellowship, chases after him, only to see him disappearing into the darkness. The next day he joins the other partisans in their mission, hauling ghetto escapees out of the sewer, but Jasio is cut off from his companions and chased down by the Germans in the film’s set-piece sequence, a stunningly staged chase through hemming laneways and inside buildings, with Jasio finally cornered at the top of a grandiose flight of circular stairs. Rather than be caught, Jasio, in a moment of Cagney-esque defiance, leaps to his death, plunging down the stairwell as the Germans gaze down over the rails in bewilderment.

It’s to Wajda’s credit that he’s capable of perceiving the tragic, the heroic, the absurd and grubby, and the deterministic pathos in his heroes all at once, achieving transcendence and humiliation in singular fleeting glimpses. Jasio, whose death is the result of accidents, fumbling, and ill-fortune, finally dies as the very image of resistance. Whilst the story doesn’t give any easy out clauses for its heroes who, once they commit to action, bear the consequences stoically—they are killed off with a chilling casualness that anticipates Jean-Pierre Melville’s equally grim, unsparing take on resistance warfare, Army of Shadows (1969)—nonetheless it retains a tone of humanistic good cheer that borders on the Capra-esque when the residents of Stach’s slum instantly rally when Stach and his mother are threatened by the rival resistance men looking for their stolen pistol, and see off the intruders with blunt implements. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, an effervescent humour bubbles throughout the film, as when Grzesio shows off his combat scar on his belly only to be told off by a barmaid for lewd behaviour, and Krone rambling on with old war stories distinguished by the fact that nothing actually happened to him. After the managers of the factory give Stach a lecture about the value of hard work, Krone assures him, “Work and pray, and you’ll grow a hump!”

Stach’s attempts to work up something more than awed, dutiful fellowship with Dorota edge gently into familiar teen romance fare, as he’s initially awed not only by Dorota’s looks and self-containment, but also by the fact that she knows what she’s doing in the war far more than he initially does, telling Stach and his buddies off for killing a man in their own area, and lecturing partisans of all stripes in their vital military and ideological matters. Nonetheless, he finally charms her enough so that she becomes his lover, at which point Wajda deliver his most devilish twist: bouncing out in the early morning from her apartment to buy what pathetic trifles he can at a wartime store to give her a surprise breakfast treat, he returns in time to see Dorota being led away by the Gestapo. A telling difference between the mood Wajda tries to conjure and most of the war films being made in the West at the time is the terse, stoic attitude of the heroes, the lack of tears and fireworks when tragedies and transcendences come, particularly apparent in this moment: Stach’s silent horror and despair as he watches her from behind a closed door, only his eyes visible through a grate, and Dorota’s unfussy cooperation with her captors highlight the awareness in the characters of the innate danger and transience of what they’re doing. The film’s final scene is a brilliant culmination, as Stach sits, alone in his grief, with a teenaged boy ambling towards him in curiosity in the background. He proves to be one of a new band of youths, looking distressingly young and cheery, looking to join the partisans, and Wajda fades out on the sight of Stach, now the wise leader for the next generation, facing up to his task and putting aside his sorrow.

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15th 05 - 2010 | 4 comments »

The Saragossa Manuscript (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, 1965)

Director: Wojciech Has

By Roderick Heath

In a town in war-torn, Napoleonic-era Spain, a French officer is distracted from the important business of killing when he discovers an old book in a building in which he takes shelter and is fascinated by its old-fashioned illustrations, especially the image of two harem girls in a suggestive embrace. He’s so absorbed by this he pays no attention to the Spaniards who try to take him prisoner, and their officer is soon fascinated enough to sit down and thumb the pages with him. The Spaniard recognises that the book has been annotated by his ancestor, Alfonso Van Worden, and offers his account of what happened to Alfonso (Zbigniew Cybulski) when he tried to make the journey across Spain to Madrid. He followed a dangerous trail in the rugged, depopulated Sierra Morena and stopped at the notorious Venta Quemada, an abandoned, haunted tavern. Within, he found a gateway to a hidden harem populated by two princess sisters, Emina (Iga Cembrzynska) and Zibelda (Joanna Jedryka), and their coterie of lesbian houris, who greeted Alfonso as their cousin and implored him to take up the Islamic faith and marry them both.

That’s just the first 15 minutes of this extravagant product of Polish cinema’s renaissance in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Resembling up to this point a bawdy soldiers’ fantasy, The Saragossa Manuscript deepens and broadens almost exponentially whilst never losing the sly, teasing edge with which it commences. Saragossa became iconic for some of the cine-literate counterculture of the ‘60s, and directors as diverse as David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Neil Jordan, Lars Von Trier, and Martin Scorsese had all venerated it. Although it’s a more playful film than any he’s made, it’s not hard to see why it would delight Lynch, nor its influence on the odyssey of bewilderment suffered by the protagonist of Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) or the stories-within-stories structure of Jordan’s The Company of Wolves. Buñuel paid it the unheard-of compliment, for him, of going to see it three times.

The Saragossa Manuscript fits in neatly with other Eastern European works of semi-surreal fantasy, possessing the same open-ended, free-flowing, dry-witted, sexually and intellectually knowing sensibility that often defines the native varieties of magic-realism beyond the Danube. It was, in spite of its antic ’60s disposition, adapted from a 19th century novel by Jan Potocki, and there’s a discernible influence of the rambling experimentalism of Laurence Sterne and the picaresque tradition (which the Spanish setting almost certainly pays tribute to) on the story’s practically post-modern enquiry into the nature of storytelling itself, and how it connects the human world. Alfonso’s accounted travails worsen as he tries to keep the promise he gave to the sisters to not speak of them to anyone, in spite of not knowing whether he merely dreams them; each time he sees them, he ends up drinking a potion that knocks him out, and then awakens alongside the bodies of two hanged bandits, the Zoto brothers. Alfonso is then continually prodded, by the anecdotes of others and by threats and pressure, to divulge his own secret.

When he receives shelter from a stern, but kindly hermit priest (Kazimierz Opalinski), Alfonso listens to the cautionary account of Pasheko (Franciszek Pieczka), a nutty nobleman missing an eye, after falling into a similar situation with two sisters, in this case his father’s young second wife and her sibling. He also met them in the haunted inn before awakening and having his eye gouged out by the ghosts of the Zoto brothers. When he leaves the priest’s house in the morning, Alfonso is arrested by members of the Inquisition, who torture him to learn the whereabouts of the sisters. But the sisters and the Zoto brothers, seemingly very much alive (the bodies on the gibbets were, they claim, shepherds hung as scapegoats) rescue him and spirit him back to the harem. This time, however, the outraged entrance of a sheikh forces Alfonso to again drink the potion, and when he awakens, he falls into the company of an airy, cryptic Cabalist, Pedro Uzeda (Adam Pawlikowski) and an Enlightened intellectual, Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek), whom the Inquisitors, mistaking him for Alfonso, accidentally try to arrest. Alfonso and Velasquez stay the night at the Cabalist’s villa, as the patron commands his sister Rebecca (Beata Tyszkiewicz) to aid him in distracting Velazquez and hiding from Alfonso the very book from which his memoir is being read, which seems to outlay all he’s going through but not the reasons why, the game needing to be played through to make sense.

As the disparate coterie settles down for dinner in the Cabalist’s enchanted villa, they listen to Señor Avadoro (Leon Niemczyk), a hardy, wise, poor aristocrat, and his anecdotes about his life in Madrid, which eventually brought him into contact with Alfonso’s famous duellist father (Slawomir Lindner). This story requires constant divergence into anecdotes within anecdotes to describe the net of narratives that, as Velazquez perceives, is the nature of the world: Rebecca prods him to recognise that ghosts and poetry are necessary to really capture the essence of life. Avadoro’s insanely complicated, but finally coherent tale explicates a knotty situation that involved his friend Don Toledo (Bogumil Kobiela), a rakish but spiritually fearful gadabout; Don Lopez Suarez (Krzysztof Litwin), the wet-behind-the-ears son of a Cadiz businessman (Stanislaw Igar); Frasquetta (Elzbieta Czyzewska), a conniving coquette; and Don Busqueros (Zdzislaw Maklakiewicz), a tricky but brilliant stage manager of fortunate outcomes.

The Saragossa Manuscript is divided into two distinct halves, and, in some ways, plays as two (or three, or a half-dozen) films in one. The plot that compels the film in the first half is set aside for most of the second as Avadoro tells his stories. Finally, all the pieces have some, occasionally barely discernable, relationship to the core narrative of Alfonso proving his fidelity to the princesses. Whilst the film is about the power of storytelling, it’s also about the spaces between stories, the indescribable, and the necessarily secret. Keeping the princesses’ secret is key to all the pleasures of paradise for Alfonso, but whether he’s in for paradise or damnation is kept cunningly vague until close to the end, when both realms suddenly seem irrelevant to the mystical circle of death and rebirth Alfonso becomes a part of. The cautionary tales he listens to prove to be mere flim-flam, in which moral instructions give way to their opposites, and barriers of time, the soul, and society crumble away. Even the sheikh, whose daughters the princesses are, proves to be the hermit priest, and possibly a version of Alfonso himself.

Potocki, who reportedly wrote the tale to entertain his wife, was fascinated by the occult and took inspiration from the structure of collections like Arabian Nights and Il Decameron, and Has’s adaptation anticipates Pasolini’s versions of those works. The film flows with a stately pace, and, at a hair over three hours, there are points during Saragossa where one wishes for less divergence and more zip. In spite of the teeming bizarreness and humorous flourishes, it’s a film that’s certainly beholden to its literary roots, with the act of telling requiring each anecdote to be set up in terms of teller and listener. Has seems to have worked with great enthusiasm and a not very high budget to recreate Spain on a Polish backlot, but there are few films that blend the matter-of-fact and the mystical with such ease. The inherent sensuality and sliding sense of truth and overcharged mysticism inherent in the tale only find rapturous realistion at carefully spaced intervals, when the film does wield genuinely disorientating creativity, for example, at the very end, when reality loses its shape for Alfonso in the harem cave, and when Alfonso glimpses the sisters, one beckoning as the other sits with his son, reflected in a hovering ornamental mirror.

Has nonetheless offers landscapes of sun-blazed rocks, of the mountains dotted with piles of skulls, rough-hewn gibbets and leering vultures, the luxuriant confines of the princesses’ harem, and the halls of the Cabalist’s villa, which may have had an imagistic influence on many directors who saw them. They employ the same kind of play-act surrealism that Buñuel liked, and the character interactions are expounded in some remarkably composed extended shots that are almost invisible in their physical fluidity.

Saragossa is very much a product of 1964: the mixture of classic literature with historical bawdiness suggests the immediate influence of Tom Jones (1963), with the cast’s females gleefully thrusting forth overflowing décolletages. The humour that runs through the film is constantly ribald and satirical, like Pasheko’s appearance, moaning in madness to alarm Alfonso, giving way to easy conversation such as when the priest tells him to stop wasting time. When the sisters tell him that they’ve never seen a man before, so they and their fellows in the harem “gave each other their love,” with all that implies, Alfonso has to admit: “This is beginning to sound interesting.” One anecdote describes Alfonso’s duellist father getting himself skewered by an opponent in a moment of clumsiness, the two men awkwardly apologising to each other with refined politeness before the father collapses. In another, Busqueros recounts Frasquetta’s punishing her husband for trying to kill her lover by faking a haunting, scaring him with a plethora of tricks, like making her voice resound in an amphora to sound otherworldly, and setting up a jack o’ lantern. The constant gag of Alfonso’s rude, disappointing awakenings after nights with the princesses, has a quality of bitter, but funny disappointment, and, as he admits to them, “Every time I see you two, I worry I won’t ever see you again!”

An undercurrent of menace in the main story is nonetheless apparent, as Alfonso is continually segueing from the fecund wonderland of the harem to the blasted, apocalyptic mountainside and the gibbet’s victims. In flashback, after receiving that near-fatal duelling wound, Alfonso’s father had cried out that he would sell his soul for a drink of water, at which point the woman who became Alfonso’s mother walked out of the hills to give him a drink. Is Alfonso a devil’s child, and are the sisters trying to claim back for the devil the soul he’s still owed? The answer, as the film’s closing moments suggest, is far less medieval and far more pagan: having learnt everything he’s been through was a sham to test his capacity to keep the sisters’ secret, and seeing the possibility that the sheikh is Alfonso’s own mirror image, Alfonso glimpses a world of pure spirit beneath the world he’s in, a refined metaphor for a cosmic chain of fathers and sons in a world with far more multiplicities than mere Manichaeism can contain. Alfonso is finally visited by a vision of the sisters with his child, inspiring him to throw away his memoir and ride back to Venta Quesada, giving in either to beautiful madness or to the call of a richer plain of existence where he’s fulfilled his natural duty of keeping the life cycle going. It’s hard not to cheer him on his way.

Cybulski was often called the Polish James Dean for his electric channelling of postwar angst in his performances for Andrzej Wajda, youth appeal with his trademark dark sunglasses—this is one of the few films where he discarded them—and early, tragic death just three years after making this film. He delivers a terrific performance as Alfonso, partly comic fool of fortune, part swaggering young gay blade, even if he disappears for a long stretch of the second half: he manages to make Alfonso neither overly knowing or ludicrously naïve, leading to the delightful moment where his protests of religious scruples give way to dizzied yelps as the sisters push him back forth and plant voracious kisses on him. He’s not alone in offering hilarious turns, with Kobieda’s Toledo and Maklakiewicz’s Busqueros particularly good, and Czyzewska’s Frasquetta in all her saucy, naughty glory. Niemczyk as Avadoro suggests a Polish Harrison Ford waiting to cut loose with some swarthy swashbuckling, though, unfortunately, he never does. The most exciting formal element is the score provided by Krzysztof Penderecki, the great Polish avant-garde composer; the score mixes delirious snatches of classical forebears with spare, bizarre musique concrete flourishes. The Saragossa Manuscript is a hell of a fun ride. l


17th 03 - 2010 | 10 comments »

Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981)

Director/Screenwriter: Walerian Borowczyk

By Roderick Heath

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like many famed, oft-filmed horror-genre properties, has never been accurately adapted. Stevenson’s story possesses a cool, serpentine suggestion of elemental evil living within the brick and stone of Victorian London’s hidebound certainties, a low-key power that I had not actually encountered in any of the film versions, partly because of Stevenson’s strength of prose, and perhaps because most of the films follow Jekyll on his journey, and make it explicit and coherent, rather than view it from without in alarming, menaced snatches. In addition, unlike many of the film adaptations, Stevenson’s story almost completely lacks female characters. For example, the seminal 1932 Fredric March version provided Jekyll with a decorous fiancé and Hyde with a tart to harass, to extend and embody the schism behind the antihero’s cryptically described debaucheries. Stevenson himself had no time for the suggestion his story was about sexuality, and many such adornments in fact came from Richard Mansfield’s infamous stage production.

Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, who would make this bizarre and savage takeoff on the Stevenson story, could be described as an infinitely less lucky Roman Polanski or Miloš Forman. Borowczyk made a name for himself in the 50s and 60s as a maker of surrealist, short, animated films. He influenced Terry Gilliam, amongst others, who named his Jeux des anges (1964) one of the best animated films of all time. Borowczyk then gained significant acclaim with his first few feature films, including Goto, l’île d’amour (1968), Blanche (1971), and the Palme d’Or-nominated Dzieje grzechu (1975), but his career was generally perceived as losing steam in the later 70s, and his later work was dismissed as mere grindhouse fare. His short film Une Collection Particuliere (1973), a wry catalogue of the peculiarities of Victorian-era pornography, saw him drift perhaps out of personal taste toward sexuality-themed films like Immoral Tales (1974), and particularly, his variation on Beauty and the Beast variation La bête (1975); he eventually made Emmanuelle 5 in 1987 in final consummation of his drift into skin flicks. And yet prominent Australian film critic Scott Murray suggested in 1998 that Borowczyk’s oeuvre was ripe for reappraisal and that Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (aka Dr. Jekyll and his Women; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne; The Blood of Dr. Jekyll; and Bloodlust), a fruit of the officially debased end of his career, looked like his greatest film.

Borowczyk’s Jekyll makes no pretence of fidelity to the Stevenson’s story—in fact, it’s surely the loopiest adaptation ever—and yet it captures the threat lurking within the tale to a degree that dwarfs all rivals. Borowczyk had an antiquarian streak that infused his films with a highly physical evocation of the intangibly appealing past, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes displays this quality with an alternately grimy, ghostly, and hazy beauty evoked in the period Victoriana that’s comparable to a full-colour The Elephant Man. Borowczyk’s take on the story begins with a dread-provoking, mysteriously filmed sequence that conflates two incidents from the book: an adolescent girl runs for her life from a shadowy man through alleys and dark buildings before he finally chases her down and beats her with his cane, which shatters. He starts tearing her clothes off, but an interloper scares him away.

A short distance away, at the house of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier), guests start arriving to celebrate his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). Osborne’s mother presents a unique dowry to Jekyll’s limping, pianist matriarch: a Vermeer painting recently discovered in Glasgow, which one invitee, Rev. Donald Reagan Guest (Clément Harari), proclaims to be a summit of human achievement. Other guests include General Carew (Patrick Magee) and his daughter Charlotte. Fanny is looking forward to a chance to spend the night with Jekyll as the couple’s sensual enthusiasm strains the boundaries of the acceptable: when they kiss with illicit glee in Jekyll’s laboratory, she flinches at the sight of Jekyll’s father’s portrait staring at them from the wall.

Jekyll’s recently published The Laboratory and Transcendental Medicine, a book that lays out his new theories of metaphysical medicine, is hotly debated about the dinner table by Jekyll, Reagan, and Jekyll’s colleague and critic Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon, an ubiquitous figure of Euro-exploitation). Borowczyk suggests what’s coming as, throughout the dinner conversation, flash cuts reveal glimpses of atrocities that will be committed by night’s end. For the evening entertainment, Victoria Enfield, the daughter of one the guests, dances, but the frivolities are interrupted by news of the discovery of the fatally beaten young girl.

All hell begins to break loose when Victoria, resting in an upstairs bedroom to recover from faintness after her dance, is raped with startling savagery and left for dead by an intruder. The men immediately presume the man who attacked the girl has infiltrated the house, and the General takes charge, ordering the women to lock themselves in their rooms and then setting out to track the man down; instead, he accidentally shoots the Osbournes’ coachman. The General is then sprung upon and tied up by the intruder, who tears off his medals and stamps on them, prongs his surprisingly willing daughter in front of him, and dashes off to do more mischief, including sexually assaulting one of the young male guests. Jekyll, who has seemed to have been outside tending to the coachman, returns at last in an exhausted state, and the servant he sent to fetch the police turns up dead. Now in a state of siege, Lanyon has the women take a sedative so they can more easily be kept locked together. Fanny avoids taking the draught and sneaks down to Henry’s lab, where she watches him bathe the solution that he uses to transmogrify into Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg).

It’s a touch of inestimable cheek on Borowczyk’s part to name Jekyll’s fiancé after Stevenson’s real-life wife, whose criticisms of the work reputedly inspired Stevenson to burn his first draft of the novella. And yet explicitly setting the drama in a blurry mid-ground between reality and fantasy helps signal that this is a riff on a familiar tale, and it then proceeds to conjure a bold and troubling fever dream out of Stevenson’s raw material. Whilst the besieged set-up and single-night structure is original, Borowczyk, like the original story, keeps the identity of Hyde mysterious for more than half the film, with Hyde’s appearances fast, obscured, and punctuated by unnerving glimpses of perverted savagery. Hyde’s killings aren’t just symbolic of sexual aggression as they are in so many horror movies: they are sexual aggression, for in the course of the film he kills at least one man and one woman by sexual penetration (or so we’re told) with his gigantic, animalistic phallus, as Lanyon notes with increasingly queasy apprehension. Lanyon realises they’re up against a creature not only brutal in nature but completely lacking in all sense of behavioural prohibition.

Some critics had, amusingly, condemned Borowczyk in his earlier films for making erotic films that weren’t erotic, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes extends this contradiction at least to the extent that Borowczyk is completely uninterested in the usual brands of eroticism or violent hype. Only in one scene, that in which the General’s daughter eagerly presents herself to Hyde, the beast fumbling with his colossal silhouetted penis, does the film slide into clumsiness, although the image of the prim Victorian lass eagerly giving herself to a monster to taunt her trussed-up, tyrannical father fits into the anarchic structure neatly. When she unties the General after he promises not to punish her, he immediately slaps her and then bends her over to whip her arse with unchecked fury. Magee, a tremendous actor who delighted in playing grotesques, had played the Marquis de Sade in Peter Brook’s similar, if far more self-consciously highbrow Marat/Sade (1967). Borowczyk’s film explores a genuinely Sadean side to Stevenson’s parable, which bears more than passing resemblance to 120 Days of Sodom and the film version Salo (1975) by Pasolini. Docteur Jekyll is not that grotesque, though some moments, like swiftly employed, nightmarish visions of Hyde’s victims hanging, their bloodied genitalia on display, evoke the furthest reaches of Sadean imagery.

Stevenson’s story contributed to the growing strain of psychic pessimism in late Victorian fiction that also manifested in H.G. Wells’ scientific romances and, finally, clearly breached the walls of symbolist fiction in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Borowczyk’s film successfully closes that circle, as the film’s remarkable final 20 minutes build a mounting sense of apocalyptic threat. Like Conrad, Borowczyk suggests the dissolution of civilisation through the totems of colonial conquest in Africa, in this case, poisoned arrows the General has brought back him from the “Black Continent” and given to Jekyll as his wedding present, a martial man’s gift that stands in opposition to the art of Vermeer. Hyde makes eager use of the arrows, shooting Fanny with one, and then making a pin-cushion out of the General, to his daughter’s giddy delight, until Hyde casually riddles her with barbs, too.

Borowczyk realises with power and integrity the implicit dichotomies of Stevenson’s text, as Jekyll’s “transcendental medicine” unleashes a force of utterly barbaric nihilism, yet still remaining, in a curious fashion, transcendental. The acting isn’t very important, with Kier and Pierro dubbed. Pierro, nonetheless, embodies Fanny with panther-like force, and both Borowczyk and Jean Rollin, to whose films Borowczyk’s display much in common, used her several times. As alarming and fascinating as Jekyll is until this point, the film doesn’t entirely hit its stride until the last 10 minutes, when Jekyll reconstitutes himself with Lanyon’s aid. Lanyon has saved a small amount of a substance needed to work the restoration from a batch Hyde has destroyed; the revelation that his friend is the monster so horrifies Lanyon that he falls dead from a heart attack. Jekyll then picks up a wounded and bewildered Fanny and takes her to his laboratory, explaining his system not with shame and self-hatred but with enthusiasm about being the first man to truly present two dichotomous faces to the world. He immediately sets about making another bath of his solution, unable to and uninterested in resisting the call of Hyde again.

Rather than being mortified by his revelations, Fanny declares she must take the bath herself. To save herself from the arrow’s poison and to join with Jekyll in his barbaric liberation, she dives right in and turns into a yellow-eyed demon who, with Hyde, sets about laying waste to the house and murdering the rest of the inhabitants. Fanny enthusiastically knifes her own mother, and the pair burn books and destroy artworks, including the Vermeer and the picture of Jekyll’s father. In its sheer unleashed anarchy, Jekyll bests anything Godard came up with to suggest the crack-up of Western civilisation in Week-End (1967).

In the film’s final mad moments, the couple flee in a coach, rutting on the floor of the carriage and lapping the blood streaming from each-other’s wounds, as Bernard Parmegiani’s driving electronic score pulses to ecstatic rhythms and then runs down like a steam engine losing force to the film’s final puff. This is utterly brilliant filmmaking that packs a tremendous wallop. l


11th 11 - 2009 | 3 comments »

PFFAmerica 2009: Earthly Paradise (Droga do Raju, 2008)

Director/Co-Screenwriter: Gerwazy Reguła

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Once upon a time, there was a lady who was SO good that everywhere she went, the sun followed her and shined its light so strongly that nobody and nothing ever cast a shadow. Bad things happened, sometimes even to the good lady, but the sun, doing its job, was so bright, that no shadows could ever fall on the lady. And the lady had such a cute smile that everyone else just had to smile, too, and that made them feel better. And so the lady got everything she wanted, because she was SO good, and lived happily ever after.

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The good lady in Earthly Paradise, Ela (Ilona Ostrowska)—you don’t suppose that could be short for Cinderella, do you?—is a single mom living in the small town in southern Poland where she was born and raised. She supports herself and her very cute, well-behaved son Damian (Przemsław Łaba) by working at a meat-packing plant, and lives with her invalid mother (Boźena Adamek) in the house in which she grew up. Ela is a culinary school graduate who dreams up recipes and writes them in an elaborately bound notebook to keep hope alive that one day she will be able to cook professionally. In a short dream sequence, we see her laying her table with elaborate salads, desserts, and other assorted goodies.

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Ela has a best friend, Kasia (Aleksandra Woźniak); a very nice boss who amid massive layoffs, about which he is extremely apologetic, always keeps Ela on; and Mirek (Przemysław Sadowski), a garbage truck driver she flirts with every day at the plant dumpster. One day, Ela finds an injured hawk near a dam. She picks it up and pets it, and it miraculously flies off—in fact, it flies back and forth in front of Ela several times so we get the idea that it is completely cured. Later, when Mirek doesn’t show up at the dumpster and stands her up for a date, Ela tracks him down through his well-to-do father (Krzystof Stelmaszyk) to a hospital, where Mirek is dying of blood poisoning. She holds his hand, and he is cured. People start lining up at her house for faith healing. Ela is perplexed and embarrassed by this apparent divine gift she has been given. Or maybe it’s just that perky smile she never loses.

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Earthly Paradise is a calorie-free dessert that depends so much on the likeability of its main character that it ignores everything else. We see Ela’s mother once, and then she conveniently dies so we can have a confrontation with the wicked sister who hasn’t visited mom and sis for 8 years and comes to the funeral to demand half of everything. We have this confrontation so that Mirek can stand up for Ela and Damian—we never see sis or her shot-drinking husband again. Kasia is beautifully played by Aleksandra Woźniak, who came out of a 10-year retirement for the role; she needn’t have bothered, as her unlucky character’s fate is to get hit by a truck. We don’t witness the accident, and she isn’t given a funeral. She’s just gone. Mirek is a cipher. An Iraq war veteran apparently with no demons at all, he returns to this tiny village mainly to be the handsome hunk Ela can fall in love with. There is a scene of him driving bumpily down a dirt road with some buddies in a three-car caravan. I had to ask the producer, Marta Plucińska, who did a Q&A after the screening, what the hell they were doing. It took a lot of fractured English and translation for her to tell me it was a joyride. O-kay. And Ela, a trained chef, NEVER COOKS, not even once, in this entire film.

It flabbergasted me to learn that this film was made within the mainstream Polish film industry for €4 million. That seems like enough money to shoot a few transitional scenes, develop at least a couple of the dozens of plot points this script throws our way, make these characters come to life instead of treating them like the pieces of meat the plant workers cut into cubes for purposes unknown, add a little shading. But, Plucińska, whose idea this was and who cowrote the script, really wanted that sun blazing at high noon 24/7. Bad things happen, but they are forgotten. Ela isn’t a cockeyed optimist like Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Truth is, we do want to spend time with her because she’s genuine, even if everything does just fall into her lap. It’s producer Plucińska and her proudly mainstream attitude—this is what Łódź is turning out these days, heaven help us—who’s the fake. l


8th 11 - 2009 | 6 comments »

PFFAmerica 2009: The Forest (Las, 2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Piotr Dumała

2009 Polish Film Festival in America

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is not Kieślowski, Wajda, or Pasikowski who are the most sought-after, loved, and welcome of Polish filmmakers at almost all of the world’s festivals. It is Piotr Dumała.

The renown of premier animator Piotr Dumała may not have reached many English-speaking countries, but it should. My first film of the PFFAmerica, and my first Dumała film, was a deep—very deep—experience. Prefaced by an impressionistic, almost experimental animation of snatched moments and the ever-grinding gears of time that, for want of knowing its real title, I’ll call When Father Is Six Feet Under, Dumała has created a disorienting, mournful prologue for this, his first live-action feature film.

The first of the many, many gorgeous images in this black-and-white film is of a tree lizard clinging vertically to a tree, just barely distinguishable from the bark on which it hides. A closer look shows the lizard scrambling higher, away from prying eyes. We are directed to the ground, as a scruffly-looking old man (Stanisław Brudny) and his equally scruffy companion (Mariusz Bonaszewski) stalk through the mist-draped forest, the old man confidently leading the way, the younger man crouching, looking warily around, intemittently clinging to the large leather bag slung over the old man’s shoulder.

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We next see the two men, clean-shaven this time, in a small room. The younger man is holding and sponge-bathing the older man’s back. We can see when the younger man has to secure the older man to the chair with a leather belt so that he can wash the front that the older man is either paralyzed or too weak to sit up himself. This protracted scene of a very thorough scrubbing ends when the younger man asked the older man to try to hold onto him as the younger man lifts him onto the bed he has meticulously prepared. Clearly, from the loving care the younger man shows, he is tending to his father.

We are given no background on these two men—why they live in rather primitive circumstances we assume must be in the forest, whether they have neighbors, what they do to get by. All of our attention is focused on the project that preoccupies them both—the father’s impending death. The film shifts back and forth between the pair’s journey through the forest and the son tending to his father—the former occurring in the old man’s thoughts and dreams, the latter the attempts by the son to keep his father with him. In one scene, the son tries to feed his father. After two mouthfuls of gruel, the old man falls asleep. The son fusses with the food, putting the pot over the wood-burning stove several times, thinking that it is not warm enough, and returning to his father’s bedside to try to feed someone who has clearly gone past the desire to eat and lays asleep, truly suspended between life and death.

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The forest scenes have subtle references to the Torah, or to some other mythic symbology. The father stalks, kills, and filets a snake, much to his son’s disgust. They make camp for the evening, and the father unwraps the snake meat and fits it on a fork to cook in the blazing campfire—looking a bit like a burning bush—he has built. The son reluctantly takes two pieces, but pushes away the third. It lands in the fire; the father fishes it out and devours it. This seems an allusion to the tree of knowledge—the son does not wish to fully awaken to his father’s impending death, but the father is ready. In the next scene, the father shaves himself with a knife, views his image in the river, and goes back to slay his son. He builds a huge pyre for his dead son and sets it ablaze; we awaken from this scene to find that the father has died.

I thought of the sacrifice of Isaac in this scene. The forest scenes leading up to this final rejection of his son show him hitting and talking harshly to the younger man, as though he were impeding the old man’s journey. When the father completes the sacrifice, so to speak, he has truly let go of what was dear to him in life and given himself over to God.

There is a harshness to this film that I know from experience accurately replicates the feelings loving children have when a dying parent turns inward, indifferent to them and their feelings. I commend Dumała for not giving us the candy-coated deaths mainstream films traffick in and thereby preparing us realistically for death the way it really happens for most of us. The lush black-and-white photography—something I’m starting to expect from Polish films after seeing Time to Die—is evocative and absolutely perfect for this film. The spare score and dialogue almost seem unnecessary, but lend some details about the relationship of father and son that help flesh out the picture somewhat. I’ve seen other rich evocations of the passage to death—the aforementioned Time to Die and a psychedelic film from Mexico called Vera. For my money, however, it will be a long time before any filmmaker tops this auspicious feature debut from Piotr Dumała. l

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25th 03 - 2008 | no comment »

Time to Die (Pora umierać, 2007)

Director/Screenwriter: Dorota Kędzierzawska

2008 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When one crosses the 50-yard-line of life, as I have, and the adults one grew up with leave this mortal coil one by one, thoughts of the end of life are inevitable. Will I still be able to remain independent, or will I be sick, feeble, or even lose my mind to dementia or Alzheimer’s? How will my younger family members regard and treat me? Will I lose my place in the stream of life before I die? How can I make my old age and death joyful and meaningful? For older movie enthusiasts, those rare films about the aged that avoid caricature and offer advice and comfort become the narratives we seek.

Until yesterday, I thought the only working film maker with a real interest in the elderly was Paul Cox. He wrote A Woman’s Tale in the space of a week for 75-year-old Sheila Florance, who was near death from cancer and found inspiration to live long enough to complete the picture and receive the 1991 Best Actress award for it from the Australian Film Institute. I was reminded of that superbly human motion picture and Florance’s indelible portrait of a feisty free spirit as I watched the 91-year-old Danuta Szaflarska give life to the refined, independent-minded Mrs. Aneila, the strong center of Time to Die.

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Mrs. Aneila lives in a large, old house in Warsaw. She is flanked on one side by a McMansion owned by a nouveau riche couple and by a rundown music club for children on the other. During the Communist regime, she was forced to share her home with other “comrades.” Just after the film’s opening, we watch the last of them moving out. She can’t take the piano and offers to sell it to Mrs. Aneila. Then she remarks, “What would you do with a piano? I’ll send the buyer over when I find one.” As the moving truck pulls away, Mrs. Aneila says out loud, “But it’s my piano!”

Finally, blessedly alone save for her adorable border collie, Philadelphia, Mrs. Aneila goes to the kitchen to make tea and toast. She butters the toast, cuts it into several rectangles, and offers a piece to Phila. “You like toast, don’t you,” she says as Phila gobbles up her offering. The pair goes to the upstairs sunroom of the rambling house, where Mrs. Aneila takes up her binoculars to see what her neighbors are up to. While she watches, Phila eats the rest of the bread.

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Mrs. Aneila’s adored son Wituś (Krzysztof Globisz) comes for his regular visit. Mrs. Aneila asks him to come live with her. “You always said tenants were a nuisance. Now they’re gone!” Wituś says his wife Marzenka (Marta Waldera) wouldn’t approve it. He leaves, with his mother thinking his wife is a real pill. But, in fact, Wituś is eager to get his hands on “his house,” demolish it, and sell the land to the highest bidder. Only his mother’s insistence on staying in its familiar, faded glory stands between him and the good life. What Mrs. Aneila does when she learns of his disloyalty forms what remains of the plot.

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The film, however, uses this storyline as a frame to observe the daily life, thoughts, and memories of this ancient and beautiful woman. Children are a focal point. Mrs. Aneila conjures many images of her young son (Wit Kaczanowski Jr.), a soft-faced lad with tender eyes. She encounters another young man (Kamil Bitau) nicknamed Dostoyevsky because his last name is Fyodor after he climbs up the side of the house and comes into her sunroom. He has a broad, mischievious face—a budding Huck Finn—and lives up to his looks by saying he planned to take something from the house and sell it. When she sends him away, he asks her for a fiver. She doesn’t understand the term, but when he descends the way he came, in a shot that emphasizes the height of her sunroom, she watches him fearfully and tells Phila she should have given him the fiver, her heart warmed by his simple, honest cheerfulness.

Mrs. Aneila is truly a tender-hearted woman who can be wounded and who tends to strike out when it happens. Her 10-year-old granddaughter, a fat and thoughtless child, rejects her offer of an ancient toy, saying she’d rather have her grandmother’s ring. She repeatedly calls Mrs. Aneila “grammy” instead of the preferred “grandma,” even after being corrected several times, and crushes walnuts in her hands. Bruised, Mrs. Aneila tells her if she doesn’t stop eating, she won’t have any admirers, and sends the child into an angry tantrum.

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Shot in exquisite black and white by cinematographer Artur Reinhart, the film is visual poetry to match the reveries of its main character. For example, she spies the young couple who run the music club quarrelling near a tree and then tenderly mending fences with a kiss. Mrs. Aneila remembers herself as a beautiful, young woman dancing with her handsome, young husband. The camera is in focus, sharply showcasing the attractiveness of the couple, but slowed to the speed of a willed and wonderful memory. Many scenes are shot through the uneven glazing of the many glass windows in the house, blurring and distorting the images like the edges of a cloud would. Many interesting camera angles are used to suggest space and height within the shrub-choked grounds of the house.

Of course, the review wouldn’t be complete without discussing Philadelphia, who has almost as much screen time as Szaflarska. The dog, often shown in close-up, frequently licks her lips when hunger strikes, cracks walnuts in her teeth and digs out the meat, and does her best to take care of her mistress. Mrs. Aneila usually has to run down the stairs to answer the phone, getting there just as the caller hangs up. Phila runs ahead of her and pulls the phone off the hook so she won’t miss the call. Mrs. Aneila constantly asks Phila if she’s lost her mind when she barks, but these alerts always mean that someone is around who shouldn’t be. This is one of the finest human-dog portrayals on screen.

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At Mrs. Aneila’s lowest point, she decides not to commit suicide, but just to will herself to die. She recites part of Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet. I quote it here in toto because it sums up what this film is all about:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark, at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my fate with kings.

I’m not at all sure this charming and wise film will be available in theatres or on DVD. I hope it is. At least, view the trailer. See a woman who swings on a swing, who loves to walk in the pouring rain, who remembers dancing as a young bride, who loves her house filled with memories.

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