Pure Escapes

Jerzy Skolimowski and the placeless utopia of youth
by Chris Fujiwara  posted July 10, 2009
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The first six feature films that Jerzy Skolimowski directed from his own original scripts form the most consistent part of a career that bears many hallmarks of inconsistency—including, from 1972 on, some lengthy gaps between films. Made during a period of sustained productivity for the director, the six include his first four Polish films—Rysopis (Identification Marks: None) (1964), Walkover (1965), Barrier (1966), and Hands Up! (1967)—and two films made at or near the start of his filmmaking peregrinations away from his native country: Le Départ (Belgium, 1967) and Deep End (West Germany/UK, 1971). All six deal with young men and portray youth as a borderline, transitional state—above all, a utopian state, characterized by a sense of placelessness in which pure escape is possible for as long as a movement can still be invented.

Utopian, not euphoric. Loss, anxiety, and futility harass the protagonists of all six films. The immediate source of anxiety for the heroes of the first two, played (superbly) by Skolimowski himself, is the impending end of youth. Rysopis and Walkover both take place in Warsaw during the last few hours before a purely symbolic deadline: in Rysopis, the hero has been ordered to report for his long-eluded military service; in Walkover, the hero is about to turn 30. These plotless films can't properly be called episodic or slice of life; they are image-generating machines set in motion by their protagonists' restlessness. Their subjects are the opposite of what Nicholas Ray said Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was about—"a boy wants to be a man, quick": Skolimowski's heroes have only a short time to go on avoiding being men; the films end without a clear threshold having been crossed or a future path clearly marked.

Barrier, which opens with a group of students holding an indoor athletic competition to decide which of them will drop out of school, omits the deadline motif of the first two films—which only clarifies the underlying concerns shared by all three. (The heroes of the two previous films are also dropouts.) The question is always the individual's relation to institutions: the university, the military, the state. In a collectivist society, the rebel-hero can turn traitor or drop out (but to where?). If he tries to commit to his own individuality, it's without hope or enthusiasm.

There is hardly any private life in these films. In Rysopis, the hero and his wife occupy a garret apartment whose uncurtained skylight exposes it to the view of rooftop sunbathers. In Barrier, the heroine unexpectedly finds herself subjected to public questioning. All through the films, solitary movement turns into mass movement (e.g., the hallucinatory scenes of running in the street in Barrier). The distinction between inside and outside becomes thoroughly ambiguous, as the opening sequence of Walkover demonstrates visually: the camera, aboard a train car, watches through a window as people crowd around an offscreen suicide; at first inside the car, the main character jumps off the train to join them, and the camera zooms forward slightly, losing the window borders that define the scene as the enframed vision of the now-absent observing character.

Skolimowski's long takes are as exciting and distinctive as those of Kalatozov or Jancsó. His work with the camera in Walkover is exceptionally rigorous: he never cuts out of convenience but only when it is no longer possible for the camera to follow the actors (because they have escaped out of range) or the action (because it has moved to another plane of thought or being). Skolimowski's images are haunted by the never realized possibility of chaos, from which they are held back by the director's will to complete the shot, to round it off, to make it say something and not leave it soft and unformed.

Skolimowski is his own ideal actor in Rysopis, Walkover, and, less dominatingly, Hands Up!, in which he appears as one of a group of former medical students meeting for a 10th-anniversary reunion (the link to his earlier characters is that Skolimowski's student is the one who got expelled). The key to the young Skolimowski's acting is a neutrality that situates his characters in a certain emotional atmosphere without determining their capacities for action (like the way he makes surprises out of his displays of athleticism). Who is Andrzej (the hero's name in both Rysopis and Walkover)? It's hard to answer; we're used to defining people by their places, and Andrzej has no occupation and is always leaving one place, going to another, then leaving that one. His escape is an end in itself and an undoing of ends, suspending meaning and purpose.

Freed from the need to express anything, Skolimowski's performances set up their own parameters and contexts, which interact with the camera's constant movements in a fluid and free way. This means both that the characters' intentions need not be open to the camera and that their closed-off-ness is not a point being made by the director (about, for example, alienation) but merely an accidental surface effect in a world where people's interactions with one another are defined by their openness to accident.

The other lead actors in these films all inhabit this world idiosyncratically. Jan Nowicki in Barrier may be little more than a blur (Skolimowski said he wanted to play the part himself but was pressured into casting a different actor), but his insubstantiality, rather than harming the film, helps decenter it. In Le Départ, paradoxically, Jean-Pierre Léaud's exhibitionism achieves a not dissimilar effect ("Jean Pee Loud," Manny Farber quipped, and never has Jean peed louder than in Le Départ).

Le Départ (the study of a car-obsessed hair salon assistant scrambling around Brussels to scrape together the entrance fee for a car rally) may be the least angst-ridden of the early films, but it's also the one that most clearly spotlights (thanks to Léaud) how crucial performance is to them. In this, Le Départ shows how much Skolimowski's view of youth differs from that of Godard (despite certain superficial similarities that the Pole was scarcely at pains to dissimulate, taking on not just Léaud but actress Catherine Duport and cinematographer Willy Kurant from Masculin féminin [1966]) and points toward the much darker Deep End. Léaud's Marc is disturbing because he lives completely on the surface—a surface that, after the character has been, apparently, liberated from his obsession, has nothing left to do but burn up (in a stuck-frame-melting-in-the-projector-gate ending that Monte Hellman surely remembered when making his film about car nuts, Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]).

With Mike (John Moulder-Brown) in Deep End, the burning-up happens on the inside. Though he sometimes seems unknowing and naive, this young public-bath attendant is also cynical enough to use his own youth as a weapon (in a scene in which he stalks the object of his desire, Jane Asher's Susan, in a pornographic theater and the subsequent scene on the street where he gets a constable to arrest his romantic rival). He may give the impression—like Skolimowski's Andrzej characters—of having no particular place to go, but as he rushes through the film he drives it recklessly into odder and odder situations, and the film matches both his freewheeling impulsiveness and the vagueness of his sense of boundaries. Scenes, locations, and actions blur into one another, never cleanly beginning or neatly ending but emerging and vanishing within an endlessly ramifying middle zone where details of decor, of performance and gesture, form a dynamic pattern that is forever incomplete and always, messily, larger than the film.

The mixture of modes at work in Moulder-Brown's performance shows how far it departs from the various standard ways that the character of Mike might have been conceived, portrayed, and received as a type. Young men in movies are regularly typed in some way: the brooding, explosive type; the "angry young man" type; the well-bred, decent innocent; the moody romantic; the put-upon, exploited loser; the vicious aggressor... Mike has something of each of these, but he is never locked into any of them for more than a few seconds of screen time. Think of the traits with which the Beatles are endowed in Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964). Their amusement at the hysteria that surrounds them, their fundamental decency and gentleness, their superiority to their handlers—all these traits can be called typical; they make the Beatles definable, graspable, comfortable. Moulder-Brown's Mike is not a type; for much of Deep End, he is hardly even an image. Seldom has the hero of a feature-length film been less visible: his hair falling over his eyes hides him from the camera, though imperfectly, and in a bland way that undercuts, without completely extinguishing, the possible significations of rebelliousness, of arrogance.

Carrying over from Skolimowski's Polish films the theme of the necessity of escape, Le Départ and Deep End show how the possibilities for escape are drawn differently on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Skolimowski considered the differences explicitly when, in 1981, he reedited Hands Up! (which was then about to be released for the first time, the film having been shelved for 14 years after the Polish censors banned it), cutting 15 minutes from the film and adding a new prologue that constituted a kind of exile's journal, including footage shot in London, West Germany, and Lebanon. The result is a painful and disturbing work in which Skolimowski looks back on his Polish past as an aborted attempt to expand the scope of the artist under state socialism and faces a future in which the artist, relocated in the capitalist West, gets slotted into the role of perpetual outsider. The director pursued similar reflections in Moonlighting (1982) and Success Is the Best Revenge (1984), then returned to his theme of the ambiguity of youthful rebellion with 30 Door Key (Ferdydurke) (1991). The latest of the director's comebacks, the fine Four Nights With Anna (2008), can be seen as renewing meditations on sexual obsession and the fate of the scapegoat from Deep End and Hands Up!, respectively. So there is consistency in Skolimowski's work after all—a consistency that has worked by elusiveness, constantly shifting ground, finding new forms. 


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Courtesy Zespol Filmowy "Syrena"
Jerzy Skolimowski in Walkover
Photo Gallery: Pure Escapes


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Jerzy Skolimowski  |  Retrospective  |  Polish cinema  |  Cold War  |  masculinity  |  Jean-Pierre Léaud  |  Rysopis  |  Walkover  |  Barrier  |  Hands Up!  |  Le Départ


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Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

More articles by Chris Fujiwara
Author's Website: insanemute.com