Dir: Jan Jakub Kolski. Poland/France. 2003. 113mins.
One of the most frequent Polish guests at international film competition, Jan Jakub Kolski's Venice contender once again goes back to the Second World War, in order to expose old wounds that have never quite healed. But as ambitious as it looks on paper, this handsomely photographed, painstaking adaptation of a Witold Gombrowicz novel set in the Polish countryside is far too respectful of his original intentions to mould them into a coherent script and its pace too sluggish to keep up the interest of a modern audience. Still, as it has often been the case with earlier Kolski films, the themes are weighty enough to warrant more invitations to international events, possibly even awards, with prospects limited to selected art houses at best.
As the war is reaching its turning point in 1943, life is becomes unbearable for the Warsaw gentry: the front is still far away but they lack comforts; the Ghetto is next door but no one mentions it. Two gentlemen of leisure, vaguely related to the world of arts, Witold (Ferency) and Frederic (Majchrzak), leave the capital for a country estate whose routines remain pretty much unchanged despite the German occupation. There they involve themselves in the lives of the owner (Globisz), his wife (Blecka-Kolska), their daughter (Samos), her betrothed (Damiecki) and many others, indulging in dangerous mind games that will ultimately lead to tragic results.
The film often looks like The Pianist in reverse, for all the traumatic events Poland is experiencing are relegated mostly to the background. At other times it plays out like a perverse WW2 version of Dangerous Liaisons, in which a couple of decadent city intellectuals corrupt the innocence of naïve adolescents. As such the story deals with the pornography of the mind rather than the pornography of the body - and that may not be such good news for some of the film's potential customers.
There is little this script doesn't touch upon, what with the involvement of experienced scriptwriters Gerard Brach and Luc Bondy. They include issues such as culture versus nature, religious fundamentalism versus atheism, general guilt versus and the burden of individual crimes.
Other themes are more pertinent to the global conflict: the war next door versus the apparent calm on the estate, the Holocaust shadows lurking underground versus the insouciance of those who live above. There is also a surfeit of symbols from nature, such as flies caught inside a burning lamp, a bird of prey hunting in the forest and the confrontation between masters and servants and even more evident, generations. But while there are enough of these elements to fill up a dozen movies, they are never fully exploited in the script.
The roles, particularly the adult ones, are over-written and theatrically performed, with a surfeit of close-ups and medium shots. While Ptak's lensing displays considerable flexibility, smoothly accommodating everything from the almost black-and-white sequences in the woods to the lush colouring of the interiors, the editing, which is supposed to deliver a similar variety of moods, allows too many scenes to overstay their welcome.
Prod cos: Heritage Films, MACT Productions, Polish TV, Polish Canal +
Int'l sales: Heritage Films Warsaw, MACT Productions Paris
Prods: Lew Rywin, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre
Scr: Jan Jakub Kolski, Gerard Brach, Luc Bondy
Cinematography: Krzysztof Ptak
Ed: Witold Chominski
Prod des: Andrzej Przedworski, Joanna Doroszkiewicz, Piotr Kopec
Costumes: Malgorzata Zacharska
Music: Zygmunt Konieczny
Sound: Bertrand Come, Herve Buirette
Main cast: Krzysztof Majchrzak, Adam Ferency, Krzysztof Globisz, Grazyna Blecka Kolska, Gzergorz Damiecki, Sandra Samos, Kazimierz Mazur, Irena Laskowska, Jan Frycz, Anna Baniowska, Jan Urbanski