Criterion Sunday 464: Danton (1983)

I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).

Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 359: La Double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Véronique, 1991)

The Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, with his much-vaunted Three Colours trilogy (1993-94) was probably my entry into that nebulous category of ‘world cinema’, and for that I cannot underestimate his contribution to film culture. Yet in many ways this earlier film, his first made outside his native Poland, is probably my favourite of his works. It has a lot of the quasi-spiritual themes of identity he liked so much, as well as those imprecisely specific moments of transcendence — ways of looking at the world which seem like they must be metaphors for something grander, perhaps (coming from that culture of communist-era dissent) specifically political, but which Kieślowski insisted were not. For in fact in many ways he’d moved away from the political, just as our title character Weronika remains blissfully ignorant of the protest happening around her when she spies her French doppelgänger Véronique. It’s difficult to put what I mean into words precisely, but I’m thinking of when the camera pans down to see Véronique’s scarf trailing along the ground, or when she moves to the foreground to press her face against the glass, or in some of cinematographer Sławomir Idziak’s experimentation with filming through a plastic bouncy ball to invert the image. Indeed the film starts with an upside-down shot of the night sky, suggesting the film’s doubling at a visual level. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in the imagery, often just brief flashes, like the view from the train window warped by imperfections in the glass, but at a wider level dominating the whole feel of the film, which is shot through a sort of yellow-green filter. In conjunction with composer Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting orchestral score and operatic snippets, it adds up to a sort of melancholy love poem to identity and belonging. Part of its strength is that it never clearly states anything (even in the shots its producer insisted upon for the US market, available as a bonus feature), but trades instead in the kinds of intangible feelings aroused by a piece of music or a striking image. I imagine this could be frustrating for literal-minded viewers, but for me it makes the film all the more enjoyable when returning to it periodically.

(Written on 25 December 2014.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Irène Jacob; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1997 (and at home many times subsequently, most recently on Blu-ray, London, Wednesday 24 December 2014).

Mr. Jones (2019)

Today the fearsome British costume drama industry unleashes yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma upon us all. Last week my Polish themed week led up to the release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, but it can probably be considered as much a British film as a Polish one, especially as it deals with a British subject. It has the big old handsome period details you expect from such films, but it tells a slightly different story once it gets to the USSR, and perhaps that sets it apart from the usual run of such things, but I think there’s a lot to like.


This film sets itself against the backdrop of the “Holodomor” in the Ukraine — a famine during the 1930s largely engineered by the Soviet leadership, which killed millions of peasants — but really it’s about the way that these kinds of stories are treated by the media, about how the media is in the pocket of business and government interests. And so our crusading Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton, the same actor who most recently was seen as Mr Brooke in Little Women) campaigns to bring to light this atrocity at a time when Western powers were more interested in alliances with the USSR and so not well-disposed to such revelations (and the media, as ever, reliable lapdogs to the powerful). The acting is all pretty solid (even Vanessa Kirby in a rather token role as the only apparently non-historical figure), and it’s directed capably by Agnieszka Holland albeit with some little expressionist touches. However, there’s plenty about this movie which rather too on the nose, seeming to ask us “do you see??” as it’s waving its arms to make clear what its teachable moments are. For example, and perhaps most clunkily, there’s the framing device of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which we gather might have been a rather anodyne book about animals being mean to one another until our titular hero impresses upon Orwell exactly what the Soviets are really doing, at which point his faith in the Revolution starts to waver. Sadly, then, the film never quite lifts the way it needs to, but it’s worth watching all the same.

Mr. Jones film posterCREDITS
Director Agnieszka Holland; Writer Andrea Chalupa; Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk; Starring James Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby; Length 119 minutes (originally 141 minutes).
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 7 February 2020.

High Life (2018)

I’m doing a week theme around Polish films, as today sees the UK cinematic release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film Mr. Jones. It’s an English-language co-production, and so is today’s film, which I’m including for that tenuous reason. One of the co-producing companies is from Poland and Agata Buzek co-stars, but aside from that there’s not much particularly Polish in it, although there’s something about the film’s very weirdness that puts it up alongside Has or Żuławski or other out-there auteurs.


Claire Denis has made two of my favourite films of two successive decades (that’s Beau travail and 35 Shots of Rum, and a few others I adore besides), but yet I guess I’m not fully subscribed to this latest one. It’s not that it’s broaching new experiences — science-fiction setting, English language screenplay — because a lot of the idiosyncrasies that lie within it are vintage Denis, but I think it may need more time to work itself into my psyche (like L’Intrus, another film of hers that I feel I’ve slept on). It primarily feels like a mood piece, evoking an extraordinary atmosphere of isolation, in a story of one man (Robert Pattinson) and his baby — its helplessness and reliance on him only magnifying the starkness of their situation — as they live on a prison spacecraft flying out towards a black hole. His story is intercut with flashbacks both to his childhood life on Earth (the 16mm photography evoking the infinity of time having since passed), and to a time when there were others on the ship with him, and how he has come to be on his own. There are some really quite indelible scenes, and some incredibly outré setpieces, but always there’s that sublime atmosphere, with its grinding Stuart A. Staples score adding to the mystery, a mystery that never quite resolves but extends outwards, a film drifting inexorably (like the spaceship) towards its own event horizon.

High Life film posterCREDITS
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 11 May 2019.

Two Early Films by Agnieszka Holland: Screen Tests (1977) and Provincial Actors (1979)

With Agnieszka Holland’s newest film out in cinemas (I don’t imagine many of them) tomorrow, now seems like a good time to look back at two of her earliest films made in Poland, both of which deal with actors and (more in the latter film) their relationship to their directors. Both make for interesting portraits of the professional work of actors, not to mention a turbulent era in the country’s history.

Continue reading “Two Early Films by Agnieszka Holland: Screen Tests (1977) and Provincial Actors (1979)”

Les Innocentes (The Innocents, 2016)

With some of the same actors as in Paweł Pawlikowski’s recent films Ida and Cold War is this Franco-Polish coproduction, with a more polished costume drama sheen from journeywoman Anne Fontaine, who has made some solid films (I’ve reviewed both Gemma Bovery and Adore on this site, and it’s fair to say I liked one more than the other).


Photographed by Caroline Champetier, there’s an austere beauty to this Poland-set World War II film about nuns in a convent dealing with the outcome of an earlier Russian occupation, with the help of a French Red Cross nurse, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge). It’s a terrifying prospect, even in wartime, and there are no easy answers with this kind of material. Perhaps, then, the truth and the intersection with faith overwhelmed the filmmakers, or perhaps they felt it better to set up the conflicts rather than guide the audience. I found it strangely distanced but I must concede this may be more a matter of my response.

The Innocents film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer, Fontaine and Alice Vial; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 14 November 2016.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014)

This documentary work is a co-production between USA and a number of Eastern European countries, Poland among them, so it only tangentially fits into my themed week. However, it touches on a common figure in the folk mythologies of all these countries.


A beautiful film, strange and haunting, which fits into the poetic documentary category, for if it doesn’t have a clear ostensible subject, it nevertheless touches on many things in an oblique and allusive way. It’s centred in Eastern Europe and Russia, blending in the fairy tale of the title (told via animation) with images illustrating the continuation of customs in rural and city living in this part of the world, and the tension that exists between them. If I found myself sleepy during the film I was perhaps lulled by the strong sense of calm suffusing the film’s telling. I would want to revisit this though, and other films by the director, because it seems to be doing something more than just documenting the world, reaching to something even rather profound about human existence and the need for fear as a basis for humanity’s place within the world.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Oreck; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 3 October 2016.

Zimna wojna (Cold War, 2018)

If we’re covering recent Polish cinema, it’s impossible to avoid the filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski, who came to prominence with British films like Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004), but returned to his native language for Ida (2013). His most recent film goes back into a period setting for another lush, tortured romantic drama.


Somehow buried deep in its genetic code, this film is a musical. Structurally it feels as if it’s inspired by jazz (in a way that La La Land or Whiplash only wish they could be), with a loose, almost improvisational texture, and solos for each of the players. At the very least, one can say it is suffused with music. It deals with a love affair between a pianist and a singer, but in some ways the two characters getting together didn’t grab me: their love felt like more of a pretext for a key change, as we move through time from late-40s rural Poland — where prospective singers (including our heroine Zula, played by Joanna Kulig) are auditioned for a folk ensemble, while our male protagonist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) does field recordings of popular peasant songs — to Warsaw in the 50s, then tangents to various major European cities throughout the 50s, and ending sometime in the mid-60s. The cinematography is gorgeous, while for the story, extraneous explanatory bits are elided in favour of the feeling that the actors convey to one another, little phrases of a love ballad reworked into something with political and even religious meaning — the carapace of Catholicism and Communism figure throughout — but hidden deep within. (Plus bonus marks for wrapping up such an epic narrative within 90 minutes.)

Cold War film posterCREDITS
Director Paweł Pawlikowski; Writers Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski; Cinematographer Łukasz Żal; Starring Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 29 July 2018.

The First Three Feature Films by Krzysztof Zanussi: The Structure of Crystals (1969), Family Life (1971) and Illumination (1973)

Of course, the big release this Friday in the UK is a very belated one for South Korean film Parasite which has been picking up all the awards, and indeed I probably have enough South Korean films to do another themed week, though I’ve already done one a few months ago, so I’ll hold off on that for now. However, there’s also a small release for a new Agnieszka Holland film (Mr. Jones, which looks to be an odd little number, made largely in English but set in the 1930s in the USSR). She of course has a long history in Polish cinema, and I’ve just reviewed Andrzej Wajda’s seminal war film trilogy as part of my Criterion Sunday series, so herewith a themed week around Polish cinema. I’ll start with the under-heralded auteur Krzysztof Zanussi. If I don’t love his work, the posters are at least all excellent, as you expect from a country with such fine traditions of poster art

Continue reading “The First Three Feature Films by Krzysztof Zanussi: The Structure of Crystals (1969), Family Life (1971) and Illumination (1973)”

Criterion Sunday 285: Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958)

I’ve seen this film before apparently, but I really don’t recall it, which is odd. Visually, it builds on Wajda’s previous two films, particularly Kanal (1957), only deepening and enriching its monochrome tones, and setting up some beautiful and striking deep focus shots. It really is something to look at, helped along by Zbigniew Cybulski’s Maciek in his dark glasses. I don’t see him as particularly glamorous or attractive, though he has a certain screen appeal, and his work on behalf of the Communist underground in assassinating political opponents is hardly endearing either, but that’s the drama of the film. It all whirls by with a lightness of touch that recalls Renoir’s La Règle du jeu without perhaps the sense of absurdity (or without quite the same level of absurdity, because there’s certainly at least some humour at work here). It’s a film, a trilogy indeed, about the legacy of World War II in Poland, and as such these films by Wajda had a huge impact on the development of Polish filmmaking, somewhat akin to the French New Wave. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but it’s certainly a fine work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jerzy Andrzejewski and Wajda (based on the novel by Andrzejewski); Cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik; Starring Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyżewska, Wacław Zastrzeżyński; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 3 April 2002 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 6 January 2020).