October 25, 2008

Tokyo International Film Festival, Day Five: Jerzy Skolimowski's Return to Film Form

(Director Jerzy Skolimowski)

Halfway through the press conference for director Jerzy Skolimowski's Four Nights with Anna, a fellow Polishman journalist declared, "You are an institution in Poland." The journalist lamented that perhaps Japanese audiences were not fully aware of what the poet/director/actor/painter represented for the Polish people. He was right. Of the twenty-plus films he has directed, written, or acted in, only a handful are available in Japan and few can be readily accessed. Fans of Roman Polanski may recognize him as the co-writer of the screenplay for Knife in the Water, but much less is known about his own politically charged works in a career that has spanned four decades.
The journalist would be happy to know, however, that Four Nights has an inextricable link to Japan that may make it particularly meaningful for Japanese audiences. The origins are thus: busy with “other projects”, Skolimowski had forgotten the deadline for his latest screenplay, his first film in seventeen years. Faced with the task of writing it in six days, the director (who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Ewa Piaskowska) remembered something he read years ago in the Los Angeles Times. It was a tiny article about a man in Japan who snuck into the room of a woman he was in love with, watching her as she slept because he was too shy to approach her in his daily life. 
Change the setting to a small Polish town in winter and this is the basic premise of Four Nights. As I mentioned in a short review of the film last week, Skolimowski deliberately withholds information on his protagonist Leon and Anna, the object of Leon's affection, and the gradual revelations add a layer of dimension to Leon's seemingly questionable acts. Using strategic lighting, macabre images, and ominous music, he makes us suspect the worst about the man, even as our conscience tells us we are perhaps being misled. The director revealed that his manipulative use of mise-en-scène was an experiment to see if he could make the audience feel shame about their initial reactions to Leon.

I can't think of another recent film where cinematography plays such a crucial role in the storytelling, and one can imagine actors having a difficult time within such tightly controlled settings. It turned out that lead actor Artur Steranko did have some trouble, but for a different reason. A chuckling Skolimowski explained that Steranko, an actor from “provincial theatre”, was shaking in his boots during production. It got to the point where he asked the director to remind him of the sequence of his actions because he was too nervous to remember. This has only worked in favor of his performance. With his bulky frame, Leon initially comes off as imposing, but the real fright is viewing the film through the perspective of a thoroughly inscrutable man. Timid and closemouthed, he is a man so lonely and haunted that the conventional methods of human interaction are simply not possible to him.
(The director reveals a bit of eyeball.) 

As uneasy a topic it is to portray sympathetically, Four Nights invites the viewer to look at Leon and see a man beyond the easy generalization of “stalker” or “peeping Tom”. While this reviewer ultimately found Leon's actions inexcusable, it was clear the character struck a particular chord with some viewers. After a screening last week, an old Japanese man walked up to one of the film festival's organizers and exclaimed, "I was floored! I can see a man like that in Japan, but I didn't know there were people like that in Poland too!"

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