Dir: Paul Cox. Australia. 2002. 95 mins.
One of prolific Paul Cox's most admired movies is his 1987 'docudrama' Vincent, a portrait of Van Gogh told by flowing imagery and close inspection of the paintings in situ, accompanied by voice over excerpts (read by John Hurt) from Vincent's letters to his ever-faithful brother. Now Cox turns the same intense non-narrative gaze on another disturbed creative genius, the legendary dancer and choreographer Nijinsky who plunged into a schizophrenic netherworld at the shockingly early age of 29. This time the sensitive voice over is by Derek Jacobi, performing stark and increasingly crazy selections from notebooks scribbled by the dancer just before darkness descended in 1919. But so sparing is the documentary information in this airborne 'cinematic poem' some prior knowledge of Nijinsky's fame and achievements is essential, thus cutting further into the potential arthouse audience. Nevertheless, following festival appearances in Toronto, Oslo and Rotterdam, a nationwide Australian release is scheduled for April 25.
Nijinsky's tortured writings are a frightening account of entering psychosis. A reasonable stance over conservation and vegetarianism gives way to conversations with trees, growing omnipotence ("I am Christ, I am God"), a deadly rawness of emotions ("I am feeling in the flesh") and a suicide attempt. Cox attempts to visualise this via montage, dream, memories, woodland ballet and some undramatic, mainly mute, domestic scenes viewed from Nijinsky's point of view. It's a deeply-felt personal interpretation, perhaps a labour of love, but Cox fails to connect us to poor Nijinsky in the way he illuminated Van Gogh: there he had the first-hand evidence of Vincent's mental landscape. He had the paintings.
By contrast, Nijinsky's art was ephemeral: only heavily-posed promotional photographs remain, not a frame of celluloid. Cox assembles dancers wearing the costumes and makeup of all Nijinsky's roles and he stages excerpts in the woods around the St. Moritz villa where the dancer waited out the Great War. Though these are often beautifully realised - especially the excerpt from Nijinsky's choreographic masterpiece L'Après-Midi d'un Faune - their contribution to an understanding of the fearsome diaries is minimal. The repeated sequences of nesting birds, shadows, carousels, twisted trees and distant mountains certainly produce unease, but it's only when Cox pans actual pages of the scrawling, obsessive writing that we tremble for the doomed artist.
The text is delicately delivered by Jacobi, though he certainly doesn't sound 29 years old. Gossipy snippets concerning Nijinsky's dealings with such contemporary giants as Stravinsky and Rodin are entertaining, evidence of his use and abuse by preying mentor Diaghilev unforgivable.
Cox, taking his cue from his psychotic subject, goes for a "feeling not thinking" portrait of the tragic Vaslav Nijinsky. Intrigued cinema goers - members of the History Channel generation - may well expect more facts, more context, more explanation.
Prod cos: Illumination Films, MusicArtsDance Films
Aust dist: Sharmill Films
Int sales: Wellspring Media
Producers: Paul Cox, Aanya Whitehead
Scr: Paul Cox
Cinematographer: Paul Cox, Hans Sonneveld
Ed: Paul Cox
Music: Paul Grabowsky
Main cast: Derek Jacobi