Moonlighting (Skolimowksi, 1982)

Alienation and isolation feed a disturbing duality in Jerzy Skolimowski’s terrific Moonlighting, the story of four Polish immigrants sent cheaply to London to remodel a politician’s new flat.  The singularly contained story transmits via Nowak (Jeremy Irons), the group’s leader and only English speaking member who must manipulate and impress his blue-collar compatriots to keep working despite Western influences and a military coup back home. To get the arduous month long job in on time Nowak limits information, power, and ultimately emotional connection for his workers, creating a telling microcosm of the Eastern bloc in the small, unstable iconography of their London setting.

Critiques and contradictions of capitalistic culture abound, forcing Nowak into dark corners of his subconscious wrecked by guilt, doubt, and weakness. Watching the men’s perception of Nowak slowly change is striking, snaking from casual respect, to indifference, then finally to bursting anger. The final shot in the film paints a realization of what Nowak has feared the entire film – the explosion of pent up angst and frustration. And in his lyrical voice over narration, Nowak seems relieved to give up control of the reigns, as if the burden of power and manipulation has pushed him into an emotional black hole. This culminates in a surreal vision of his Polish girlfriend whispering from the burn-out display of their defunct color television.

These thematic and emotional concerns provide ample subtext to fledgling characters distanced from their physical home, while also defining the ideological complexity of Skolimowski’s main concern – dissecting the double-edged relationship between Western capitalism and Communism. The lack of dialogue puts an emphasis on Nowak’s impression of the events, a subjective struggle with interior demons and external pressures. This artistic flourish is a Skolimowski staple, a filmmaker willing to plunge his particular style into the hands of fractured lead characters battling multiple social fronts. Moonlighting proves Skolimowski’s ability to find beauty in the breakdown and pain into the refurbish, in terms of both setting and character. Not many directors can achieve such a sublime and diverse dichotomy of tones.

Torrents of Spring (Skolimowski, 1989)

During this series I’ve often mentioned Jerzy Skolimowski’s daring pinball kinetics, those dynamic formalist skirmishes bouncing symbols off characters and locations with feverish intensity. But his Torrents of Spring is something else altogether. This beautifully composed period piece slowly constructs an emotional setting within a vibrant natural context, highlighting the seemingly measured life these characters lead. It’s weak at the knees for honor and regret, romance and tragedy, and Skolimowski allows the progression of human compassion and weakness to take center stage.  Epic scope has never been this quiet and reserved.

The opening shot of a lone horse-drawn carriage being taxied across a river immediately instills this feeling, calling to mind both wealth and isolation, two themes that will perplex each other over the course of the film. The coach belongs to a wealthy Russian named Dimitri (Timothy Hutton), a wrinkled and forlorn man who walks the empty streets of a German town with silent trepidation. At one point Dimitri looks into a mirror, his lifeless eyes placating the well of wrinkles on his forehead and cheek threatening to overwhelm the entire reflection. In a surprising fit of surrealism, Skolimowski tracks the camera left to right revealing Dimitri in a fanciful jester costume. Whatever has transpired, he has certainly been made the fool.

Torrents of Spring flowers into an instinctual memory/flashback, as a now youthful Dimitri meets a nice young shop owner (Valeria Golino) by chance on a stopover back to Russia. Their impending courtship is flushed with excitement, nerves, and finally a strikingly genuine marriage proposal. But Skolimowski has never been one to trust the institution of marriage, or relationships for that matter. And in a brilliant act of formal subversion, Skolimowski uses Dante Spinotti’s lush visuals to lull the young couple into thinking their love is timeless, as natural as the wind in the trees. Of course, it isn’t.

The theme of manipulation connects Torrents of Spring with Skolimowski’s other more diverse films, but here it’s so much more organic to the rhythm’s of society and class. Like the heroes of Deep End and The Shout, Dimitri gets mentally trumped by a superior adversary, a beautiful Russian princess named Maria (Nastassja Kinski). It’s a classic spider/fly scenario wrapped in a blindingly picturesque setting, perfect for masking true intentions with the glow of the sun and shade of the forest. Dimitri’s weakness is ultimately pathetic, but for most of Skolimowski’s film his character is complex enough to convincingly shift from honorable gentlemen to horny pet, then back again.

This isn’t Skolimowski’s only venture into the land of 19th century lavish gowns and high society. But as opposed to the unabashed comedic buffoonery of The Adventures of Gerard, Torrents of Spring lives in haunting shades of color and texture, both of the physical and emotional kind. The cobblestone roads, the period architecture, hell even the droplets of water falling from the trees, all seep with personal heartache. And instead of crashing aesthetics together, Skolimowski seems intent to let the images and symbols speak for themselves.

The Lightship (Skolimowski, 1985)

The best filmmakers don’t float through genre – they dive in. And Jerzy Skolimowski’s plunges his nautical cat and mouse game The Lightship into the depths of the Crime film, revealing a haunting and minimalist deconstruction residing under the surface. Set entirely on a motionless vessel anchored off the coast of Virginia, Skolimowski pits a trio of brutal criminals against an unsuspecting Coast Guard crew, exploring the basic necessity for confrontation and action when facing escalating aggression. The physical tension and temporal isolation inherent to the clash becomes Skolimowski’s extreme focus, replacing the political or social metaphors of his previous films with iconic symbols of heroism, doubt, and evil.

Most interestingly, Skolimowski masterfully explores his setting, paralleling the dank cavernous interior spaces of the creaky ship with endless foggy exteriors, disconnecting his story from the rest of the world, destroying any hope for safety or rescue.  Roving set-pieces of dialogue, violence, and confusion snake through the hallways, into the engine rooms, then spill out onto the deck. As the conflict begins to expand beyond threats, Skolimowski breaks down the communication between characters on each side, destroying hierarchical concerns, supplanting racial standing, and undermining the arrogance of youth.

Performance is also a driving force throughout The Lightship, centering Robert Duvall’s devilish dandy Caspary with Klaus Maria Brandauer’s conflicted Captain Miller in elongated fits of verbal banter. These minefields of subtext are tonally diverse, shifting on a dime from menacing to reverent. Skolimowski’s generational dynamic once again rears its head, with Michael Lyndon evoking his disdainful and aloof character from Success Is The Best Revenge as Miller’s teenage son, acting as a sort of gauge for the audiences expectations and loyalties.

Despite the fascinating set-up and perplexing genre revisionism, The Lightship lacks the heft and imagination of Skolimowski’s other films. Only meat and potatoes here. But the film is nonetheless often thrilling and challenging, resonating on levels lesser genre films couldn’t imagine. As a reflection of the Skolimowski’s ongoing concerns with familial identity and honor, it’s another singular branch shooting out from the director’s family tree of auteurist oddities.

Success Is the Best Revenge (Skolimowski, 1984)

After watching three of his films, it’s brutally clear Jerzy Skolimowski uses sound design very differently than most other directors. His Success Is the Best Revenge, an enigmatic abstraction of Polish history and national identity, relentlessly overlaps audible patterns even when the images themselves don’t relate. In essence, sound becomes the connective tissue of the film, disavowing the notion visual continuity is reliable when documenting historical perspective. This approach comes to a crashing crescendo when Skolimowski’s theater director Alex (Michael York) finally puts on his magnum opus, clashing live action reenactments of Polish conflict with edited archival footage. It’s a devastating climax leaving plenty of crucial narrative questions unanswered.

But Success Is the Best Revenge also advances themes found in the director’s other films, namely the relationship between adolescents with the adult world of sex and politics. Alex’s teenage son Adam (Michael Lyndon) maneuvers through the film as a willful adult trapped in a child’s body, seducing a female classmate, resenting his father’s blatant weaknesses in sport and character, and finally trumping Western English life entirely and returning to Communist controlled Poland. His actions are just as calculated and arrogant as his father’s, but far more idealistic and tangible. Skolimowski inserts a seediness into Adam’s exploits, as if  the boy needs to experience the extreme freedom of capitalistic society before returning to his forgotten homeland. To distort perception and reality even further, Skolimowski fractures the connection between character identity and physical location, expanding the heightened visual frenzy of Deep End and menacing emptiness of The Shout into a Godardian deconstruction of time and space.

This river of visual and temporal uncertainty feeds back into the endless ocean of sound absurdly crowding the viewers senses. Contradictions abound in this department, including one stunningly random moment when Adam and his female building inspector begin making love in a closet, only to be interrupted when workers begin ripping the roof off from above. As insulation and drywall fall on their faces, the lovers continue with their brazen escapades, just one of the many crazy moments pushing this film further into cinematic oblivion.

While not as potent as Skolimowski’s 1970’s work, Success Is the Best Revenge provides plenty of theoretical and metaphorical baggage to mull over, including a conniving generational competition between father and son best signified during an early soccer game.  Most of all, this film shows Skolimowski at his most rigidly confrontational, exploding an avalanche of problematic symbols and ideas to address the frigid battle for psychological allegiance between East and West. In this game revenge represents neither success or failure, just natural instinct.

The Shout (Skolimowski, 1978)

Extreme sound acts as both savior and reaper in Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout, a thrilling and disjointed oddity following a Caligari-infused nightmare that springs from the ruins of one man’s broken mind. That disturbed gentlemen is Crossley (Alan Bates), a genius mental patient misremembering his life story to an unsuspecting visitor (Tim Curry). As with his Deep End, Skolimowski paints in heightened brush strokes, using a diabolically layered sound design to drift in and out of scenes as if his characters are on a permanent acid trip. And in a way, all of them are.

Like the best work of Alejandro Jodorwsky, The Shout exists in a hyperbolic state, crashing unsettling images and sounds together to construct a completely unpredictable universe. Skolimowski seems to be obsessed with sexual control, or specifically the man’s role in dominating the woman. Metaphors and symbols abound, but here they provide little explanation or justification for Crossley’s contorted vision of the world. His scream carries the power to destroy lives at will, yet his educated prose speaks only half truths at best. This dichotomy defines The Shout, making it crackle with a singular tension.

The striking end result is almost moot. Skolimowski lives and breathes in between horrific moments, forcing the viewer to construct our own version of the Crossley’s changing memory. There’s a motif of extreme close-ups here that appears to be at odds with the muted and numb facial expressions of Deep End. Yet each story feels born of the same mind, connected by an unnerving desire to force the world into submission. Sex, power, faith, and happiness must be controlled, and the cinema of Jerzy Skolimowski introduces characters who despite their best intentions, destroy the very people and ideas they love the most. For Crossley, his intense senses deafen the only happy memories that spell his salvation.