Monday, 23 March 2009

Four Nights With Anna

There are elements of Monsieur Hire, Talk To Her. A Short Film About Love, and - oh yes - Rear Window to Jerzy Skolimowski’s first film in 17 years (that is, since his apparently benighted adaptation of Ferdydurke). It’s an intense and compelling drama about the fixation of lonely Leon (Artur Steranko) on nurse Anna (Kinga Preis). Skolimowski sustains a tense, suggestive atmosphere, with nicely judged intrusions of black humour, and there are some stunning sequences: each night Leon spends with Anna has a slightly different tone and feel, the final one is beautifully staged and quite moving. There are things to criticise - a whiff of misogyny, an utterly gratuitous scene of brutal homophobia, and a particularly pitiful moment when a psychobabble explanation for our voyeur’s behaviour is offered: we learn that he was “illegitimate” (?) and brought up by his grandmother. The non-linear time-line is also a bit of a problem: it allows for some interesting juxtapositions, but also seems unnecessarily confusing at times. Overall, though, Skolimowski produces a fine film here. Good to have him back on this side of the camera.


  1. I recently watched Four Nights with Anna, on the strength of your recommendation (funny; it's usually me who does the Polish film promoting!) and I must say I think it's tremendous, easily among our best cinematic efforts this decade. I have a few bones to pick with your review this time, though. ;) I already wrote the whole thing once, and it took a long time, but when I wanted to post, it all just disappeared. This time I made a copy. :)

    I completely agree about the influences/nexuses that you mentioned - I admit I hadn't thought of Almodovar, but of course it makes perfect sense. I'm also with you on the different, distinctive tones employed for each night, and the probably needless meddling with chronology. I thought that particularly the two trials could get confusing. Also, Leon, while seriously limited in his mental capacities, is no Benjy Compson - he knows his causes from his effects - so it'd be difficult to defend that method of storytelling as somehow suitable to the workings of the character's mind. The jumbled narration was the only element of the film that felt to me like a fashionable gimmick, a purported sine qua non of serious moviemaking, rather than something that is organically rooted in the film's themes. As far as the assets go, I'd add Steranko's brilliant portrait of the alienated, fragile Leon.

    What I'm curious about in your review is what you describe as the "utterly gratuitous scene of brutal homophobia". My first question would be whether the homophobia is the assaulters' or the director's. I don't know how reliable the translation was for this scene, but although the assaulters taunt Leon for his cleanliness (figured as effeminate and thus sexually stimulating under the circumstances), the act itself seems intended as punishment - in keeping with some twisted prison idea of a code of conduct - for the "forced sex" that Leon is assumed to "prefer". Of course what it actually boils down to is exploitation and violence. As for Skolimowski's choice to include the scene at all, or shoot it as graphically as he did, I think that it is actually integral to the picture because it mirrors the scene in which Anna is raped. In this way both she and Leon are established as victims rather than oppressors, just as many other scenes point up the loneliness that they share. Because of this, also, I wouldn't see the scene as homophobic because, when seen one against the other, the scenes show sexual violence that is equally disturbing, whether hetero- or homosexual.

    Also, you point to the "psychobabble" (the extenuating circumstance that Leon is an illegitimate child) as a possible defect in the storytelling, an easy way out of a complex situation. But I'd argue that the film itself already makes that accusation, leveling it at the language in which the verdict is expressed. It is after all part of a verdict that Leon is incapable of following. In this scene he is shown barely listening to the judge, and watching a fly dying on the windowsill instead; during the other trial he asks the judge to repeat a fairly simple question. In this way, I think, the information provided by the court - expressed in rigid, high-flown formulas - is made irrelevant even as it is being stated. I see it as failing to connect with the human drama at hand, as being hopeless in describing what is really happening.

    I'm also curious about the "whiff of misogyny" - do you mean the very idea of the female body turned into a spectacle, or any particular scenes?

    Thanks again for (repeatedly) encouraging me to see Four Nights with Anna - it's a very powerful film.

  2. Many thanks indeed for your very thoughtful comments on this little review. (And especially for going to the trouble of typing them out twice.) It’s been a while since I saw ANNA now but I’ll try as best I can to remember what I was getting at here.

    I guess that any film in which a female character is frequently shown drugged, passive and prostrate, and being watched - and the viewer shares the point-of-view of the man who’s doing the drugging and watching - runs the risk of misogyny. It’s a tricky tight-rope to walk, but I remember feeling that the film’s objectification of Anna certainly fitted Mulvey’s conception of the privileging of the masculine gaze, and, yes, the female body presented as spectacle. Perhaps more could have been done to subvert or challenge that conventional stance. Of course we’re locked into Leon’s point-of-view throughout, and I felt that Skolimowski was much more interested in his male protagonist - and ensuring that the audience empathise with that male protagonist - than his female character who remains pretty enigmatic. In addition, I wondered about the decision to present Leon as having to care for a *female* relative, in a life of “cowed drudgery,” as I think one critic described it.

    When Skolimowski was interviewed at the screening, he mentioned his desire to set Leon up as the bad guy, and then to subvert that perception throughout the movie. I think some of the issues I had with the film were the rather obvious strategies through which that sympathy is courted: ie. the revelation of “illegitimacy” and the rape scene. Regarding the latter (and I should have made this clearer in the review), I’d argue that it’s less a question of whether it’s the director’s or the assaulters’ homophobia we're talking about, and more that the scene seems to fall back on a homophobic *discourse* which explicitly connects homosexual acts with, as you suggest, “exploitation and violence.” Such scenes are a cliché of prison drama, from MIDNIGHT EXPRESS to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and having Leon brutalised in this manner seems to me too easy a way to construct him as a victim, thereby ensuring audience sympathy at the violence and humiliation he has suffered. And perhaps having *both* of the protagonists assaulted in this way is too obvious a device to establish them *both* as victims? I also think that the scenes serve the function of letting Leon off the hook in a way, making his “violation” of Anna through his voyeurism seem all the more innocuous, even tender and loving, by comparison. So in the sense that the scene serves various functions, it's not "gratuitous"; you're right.

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  4. Part Two...

    Regarding the trial scene, I wonder to what extent it matters whether Leon is capable of following the verdict or not? I seem to remember feeling that the film was inviting the *viewer* to perceive a connection between his illegitimacy, the alleged “disadvantage” of a non-normative upbringing - followed by the drudgery of having to care for the relative who brought him up - as rather facile explanations for the protagonist’s actions, ones that, again, ensure audience empathy by pinning his problems on a difficult childhood. However, you may very well be right, and the film might indeed be seeking to critique rather than simply endorse that perspective. I’d need to see the scenes again to judge.

    All this being said, and despite the muddled chronology, I really admired the film, especially for its acting and attention to atmosphere. Really glad you saw it and liked it so much. It’s coincidental that you should have responded to the review now. I hadn’t been thinking about Skolimowski lately, but a couple of months ago Sight & Sound reviewed a new book on his cinema (JERZY SKOLIMOWSKI: THE CINEMA OF A NON-CONFORMIST) which got me thinking about his work again. I just dug out the review which states that the study explores - amongst other things - “the often problematic gender politics of his work” and the "tendency of his female characters to slot into stereotypes”. There’s no further elaboration on this in the review, and no indications of where the book sees ANNA (and Anna) fitting into that, but it might be interesting to investigate.

    I’ve only seen one other of his films (THE SHOUT, which I was surprised to find when we were in Oxford last year) but I may well invest in a few more when I’m over. When he was told at the BFI screening that the film of FERDYDURKE was never released in the UK, his response was “Thank God!”

    Many thanks again for the comments - much appreciated!

  5. Hey, it was worth typing it out twice to wheedle such a long response out of you. :)

    I remember watching his Ferdydurke years ago - in all probability 17 or close to that - and hating it. The novel is so dear to me, and so distinctly literary, that it would be a formidable task to make a film of it that would satisfy me. (Although there is a theatrical production made for the TV which I think was very good). The film was badly received here, where the novel is well-known or perhaps infamous for its bizarre nature; I think it must have been completely incomprehensible and baffling everywhere else.

    As you said, or as the director himself said, the spotlight is on the male character. Consequently, Anna is something of a cipher, primarily a 'body'. It is through her movements rather than her speech that she is made known to the viewer (unlike Kieslowski's film, where, if I remember correctly, we get much more of a sense of the female character, through speech and actions). Privileged gaze, yes, but the film is *about* the gaze, so I guess different rules may apply. As I understand, Mulvey talks about the implied viewer, the gaze that is not itself the subject, but which alters the perception of the subject. What if the subject is the gaze? Problematic, to say the least.

    And it's true that perhaps the violent scenes, setting the two up as victims, make Leon's violations innocent in comparison, although perhaps art is the only medium capable of rescuing such tenderness from what would otherwise be an arid court case. I know, risky, but I gather that the film is intended, at least in part, as exculpation...

    Food for thought, anyhow. Thanks!