Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Illegal history

There are utopias we hold dear. To see the first images of a film, one day, without knowing where they go or what they want. To witness something that is born, builds itself, oscillates and gets undone. To renounce to know too quickly who’s good and who’s evil because it’s so much more interesting to simply observe. In short, to keep one’s neurons going and to be surprised to still be that clever, as clever as the man who made the film, Jerzy Skolimowski in this case. 
In 1982, Skolimowski is not unknown in cinephile circles. It’s just that we know nothing of the film that he just shot (very quickly) in London and that is going to represent Great Britain at the Cannes film festival. Moonlighting is seen before we could find out what it is about. For once, the viewing of the film went faster than its pre-digested image. And if Cannes was enchanted by the film, it’s because it fulfilled the buried dream of any film critic: to discover a film as its story unfolds in front of our eyes. The utopia of real time.  
Obviously, the subject of Moonlighting is real time itself. To save money, a powerful Polish dignitary gets his London flat renovated by Polish workers who will spend a month (the length of their tourist visa) to work (illegally) like dogs before returning to Poland where they will be generously paid (even in zlotys). Because he speaks English, a certain Novack chooses the workers (who are not very smart) and manages the operations (with an iron fist). Time and money are counted and the four men have little time to see London apart from a glum bit of pavement (it’s Christmas time), a dull supermarket and the red spot that is the telephone box on the street corner. 
The film is told through Novack’s voiceover and eye-rolling movements (Jeremy Irons, frankly neurasthenic, but great). Novack hates his workers and laboriously makes do with pathetic specimens of the English population (the supermarket supervisor in a red tailor suit is unforgettable). When he learns about the military coup in Poland, he decides to wait until the very last moment (on the road to the airport) to tell the others. 
Why tell the story? To feel like script writers for a few minutes. Because there are films that will never tire to make others, who have not seen them, wonder how well and cleverly the story is told. To make them guess that the one who has found such an angle – sending back to back his country of origin (Poland) and his country of residence (England) – will have no problem to film – as others should do more often – this ungrateful and fascinating thing that is labour. Seen on a small screen (where, thanks to commercials, there are still grotesque pictures depicting labour), the frenzy with which Skolimowski’s illegal workers take down walls and install plumbing pipes comes across as – yes – refreshing.  
Among the last films we saw, Moonlighting is one that sticks so well to reality that it benefits from its energy. The Polish reality being, rightly, sinister, the film itself is not joyful, even if it’s funny. But Moonlighting is one of the first films which, in the midst of these boring and repeated stories about communication, has the freshness of Christopher Columbus’ egg. Cut off from everything, living like moles, the four Polish men of London need only to go down the street to benefit from one of these miraculous phone boxes where one can call anywhere in the world for very little. They therefore talk to their wives in Warsaw. And when Jaruzelski takes power in Warsaw, Novack nearly crawls down in the rain to contemplate, astounded, the images of tanks in the window of an electrical goods shop.  
These images are beautiful because they are today the most likely to be right. No need to be exiled, drunk, or Polish to encounter on a street corner the countless proofs that the world continues, sometimes elsewhere and almost always without us. This gives a sort of hungerless appetite, a cold desire and a raging nostalgia, which results from the effect that techniques of communication have on those who – like Novack – have the utmost trouble in communicating with themselves.  
First published in Libération on 7 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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