Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski. France-Poland. 2008. 93mins.
Veteran Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski crafts a delicate tragi-comic parable of love in his first film since 1991’s Ferdydurke. But though this story of a maladjusted misfit’s voyeuristic passion for a nurse has small moments of delight, this doesn’t stop it from dragging. There is about enough material here for a thirty-minute short, and it’s only Artur Steranko’s absorbing one-man act as a lovelorn village simpleton that stops a stretched film from feeling even thinner.
Commercially, arthouse audiences (and possibly buyers) of a certain age could rise to the bait, lured by Skolimowski’s comeback - he turns 70 this month. It helps that the film is well-shot and resonant with allegory; but respect, rather than enthusiasm, will dominate reactions, and likely confine the film’s paying public to an older film-buff demographic.
Leon Okrasa (Steranko) lives alone with his ailing grandmother in a damp-ridden house on the grounds of a provincial hospital, where he works in the incinerator room. He’s a cowed, lonely man with a sad smile and a furtive walk, who is terrified and paralysed by ordinary human contact. But we’re soon coaxed into sympathy with Leon and his obsession - Anna (Preis), a full-figured blonde nurse who works at the hospital and lives just across the yard from him. Gradually a portrait of two lonely people emerges - one a social pariah, the other a popular party girl.
Brief flashbacks attempt to boost the slight story’s dramatic heft, revealing that Leon witnessed Anna being raped years before - and was himself sent to prison for the crime. But the central focus of the pared-back script is the four nights Leon spends inside Anna’s apartment, after spiking the sugar she puts in her night-time cocoa with crushed sleeping pills.
Adam Sikora’s sober photography and composer Michal Lorenc’s melancholy accordion themes highlight the grey, twlight feel of the film’s closed provincial world, which stands at one remove from reality.
Steranko’s always watchable Leon conveys a mix silent-era underdog Mr Bean and Polish melancholia. If his character comes off in the end as less nuanced, it’s because of the script’s excessive insistence on what Leon does rather than who he is. By his fourth night chez Anna neither the talented Steranko nor the obvious fact that we’re watching a parable of unrequited love - its violence, its obsessiveness, its mute poignancy - can stop us wishing that Leon would get on with it.
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