August 30, 2012

Word has it that the fascinating Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi was so intrigued by Robert Altman’s A Wedding that he decided to try his hand at the same story.

A Wedding, film audiences may recall (and not many people do, since the blessed event was barely consummated at the box office), takes the usual Altman cast of eccentrics and turns them loose—that is, throws them together—with rambunctious results. Among the series of social and sexual gaffes that followed, Altman tried to toe the line between comedy and commentary. He’s done that before, with success, but A Wedding went wrong somewhere, in a sour way.

Don’t worry—Zanussi’s version is not just Marriage—Polish Style. The format of Contract is the same as A Wedding: mix together a bunch of people who have little in common outside their happenstance connection with the bride and groom, get them in the same house, and let ’em simmer for a while. Sooner or later, the lid will blow off.

The hosts are the groom’s father (Tadeusz Lomnicki) and step-mother (Maja Komorowska), a well-to-do couple who own a house nestled in the country. The itinerary is such that a civil ceremony is performed one day, the church ceremony the next, and the big reception immediately following.

Well, the bride’s father doesn’t make it to the civil ceremony. The host’s ex-wife icily announces her intention to spend the night in a convent rather than be a guest of the man she despises. Then the groom’s aunt (Leslie Caron) arrives, having smuggled a dog in under her lush fur coat, and loses her wayward daughter at a hotel.

These problems are small potatoes. At the church ceremony, the bride is suddenly seized by second thoughts. She excuses herself mid-sacrament and flags down the first car that drives by. As the husband follows, the parents are already smoothing things over. “Everything’s fine,” they insist, as they will keep insisting against all odds and against all evidence throughout the tumultuous reception ahead.

Zanussi handles the ensuing adventures with a nimble hand, but the comic format is deceptive. Contract systematically shreds its characters of their trappings of wealth, glamour, and propriety in which they have wrapped themselves. The bizarre hijinks of this crew are all aimed toward that end, and Zanussi—whose Ways of the Night, a more solemn examination of people at ethical loose ends, had a Seattle arthouse run earlier this year—is adept at maintaining the orderly balance of fun and confusion.

His chief collaborator is Maja Komorowska, the actress with whom he has worked often. As the hostess, she glides into every awkward situation—and there are many of them—and manipulates things back into a nervous status quo. She’s like the kid who runs back and forth, patching holes in the dike, not realizing the entire structure is about to give way. It’s a splendid performance.

The end of the film is deliberately enigmatic; it’s reminiscent of the sea monster at the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Somehow, this final mysterious visitor gives the characters a challenge, a rebuke, and maybe even a small, ironic blessing. Any film that has that many possibilities in its last moments has done its work well.

First published in the Herald, November 1984

This movie, made in 1980, was one of the reasons Zanussi was considered an exciting figure at this moment. In a footnote to Seattle theater history, Contract was the first movie that played at the Market Theater in the Pike Place Market, an eccentric and wonderful place to see stuff in the mid-Eighties.


Ways in the Night

April 20, 2011

The Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi is almost unknown in these parts. He’s been making movies—and very good ones—for more than a decade, but outside of specialized circumstances, such as a film series or film festival, his films just haven’t had the chance to be seen.

This is almost criminal, because Zanussi’s films are among the most precisely realized movies being made anywhere today. Zanussi was schooled as, of all things, a physicist, and his films have the kind of cool, controlled exterior that lead you to believe they could have been made by a scientist.

What’s interesting about Zanussi is that his exteriors are misleading. In Zanussi’s characters, a stubborn, troubled spirit simmers behind a pallid façade, and a restless mind can’t ignore the longings of an all-too-human heart.

Ways in the Night is a good case in point. It’s set in a small town in occupied Poland during the Second World War. Friedrich (Matthieu Carriere), a young German lieutenant, discusses philosophy with his superior officer (Horst Frank), who is also his cousin. They have airy intellectual arguments about life and death, but Friedrich does not seem much more excited than he would be if they were discussing a game of cards.

But when he sees Elzbieta (Maja Komorowska), he becomes tormented. He desires her, and she sees this. When he tries to make polite small talk, she treats him with civilized contempt, and she turns his longing for her against him, as she flagrantly disobeys the rules of the Occupation.

Their battle lines are not as clearly drawn as it might seem, for soon you wind up feeling sympathy for Friedrich during his crisis. As his dormant human feelings surface, his military career becomes a shambles. Pulled in different directions, and paralyzed by the hesitation he feels as a newly thoughtful person, he is racked by doubt—and by the feelings he still has for Elzbieta.

Zanussi creates an exquisitely delicate atmosphere in this film, which makes it all the more startling when passions break the surface. And the framing device at the beginning and ending gives a sense of history circling around itself. The film’s final, eerie moments go beyond poetic justice; it’s as though the final chord of a concerto were being played, after a 30-year delay since the previous note.

Apparently Zanussi has left Poland; this film is a German production. But no matter where he makes movies, he’s always a compelling director. Let’s hope that distribution of his work becomes a bit more commonplace; based on the evidence so far, he’s going to come out of this decade as one of the very best filmmakers we have.

First published in the Herald, April 12, 1984

The film was released in the U.S. about five years after Zanussi made it. The late Seventies-early Eighties were a good period for his films actually being seen here, but he’s made about thirty films since 1984’s beautiful Year of the Quiet Sun, and very few of them have seen the light in the U.S. beyond the occasional festival. So my hopeful suggestion at the last paragraph came to a zilch by that yardstick. Really curious about a film he made in 2009, Revisited, which appears to be an inquiry into his former actors, including his plain-faced goddess, Maja Komorowska.