Krzysztof Zanussi’s A Year of the Quiet Sun sneaks up on you with all the pantherish grace of its title; there’s no fuss, no hurry in Zanussi’s muted telling of this odd, halting love story. It all seems as offhand as the accidental meeting of the two main characters. Scott Wilson, an American soldier, hears the call of nature as he drives through a barren country landscape, and so stops his jeep and strides over to an abandoned car, where he can conveniently take a leak against the fender. As he discovers mid-pee, the car is not abandoned at all, but inhabited by a woman (Maja Komorowska) who is sitting quietly, painting a sunburst.
This meeting grows into a friendship that defies a formidable language barrier (she is Polish) as well as the subtle sense that these two people don’t have all that much in common, except their loneliness and, possibly, some dormant hope of happiness. Since words are insufficient for communication, Zanussi uses a variety of images to suggest feelings and moods. He does wonders with the interior of Komorowska’s apartment, small and shabby but lit with intimacy. And other images stick in the mind, such as the cookies that Komorowska offers her strange new gentleman caller – which will later be knocked to the floor by the thugs who break into the apartment – and the eerie scene in which onlookers peering into the graves of soldiers suddenly, horrifyingly, lose their balance and fall in among the corpses.
Above all, there is the body language and iconography of Wilson and Komorowska. Scott Wilson, who attended screenings of the film at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year, appeared surprisingly (to me, at least) sleek and trim in person. On the screen, his face has a majestically broken-down, fallen look; he has the crumbling features of a Roman bust, weathered by disappointment (which is why he was perfect for the small role of an old-guard pilot in The Right Stuff). When Wilson tells Komorowska that she is his last chance, that he wants to retreat to a farm somewhere with her, you believe him – because he looks like he’s gone through it all. And there may not be another actress in the world who has a face as expressive and lived-in as Maja Komorowska; we easily understand Wilson’s feelings for her.
Then there is the matter of the ending of A Year of the Quiet Sun. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away, but it is the sort of ending that can take an audience’s breath away (even while Zanussi has carefully prepared us for it), and it brings the whole movie into sudden focus. All along, Zanussi has been sneaking up on us – and in the final few seconds of his movie, he pounces.
First published in The Informer, October 1985
Thirty years after writing this, I met Zanussi at a reception for one of his films at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. So you see what happens when you stick around long enough. They were showing his great film Camouflage, and I got to tell him how much I loved the ending to that.