Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Cannes 1984: Skolimowski: at any Cost

Second text published in Libération on 19 May 1984.

Skolimowski: at any Cost*

The English title of the film is Success is the Best Revenge. It says a lot about Jerzy Skolimowski’s morals and ambition: this new film carries the auteur toward glory… at the cost of a few shortcuts. 

Alex, a Polish playwright, is looking for funding to produce a show on Poland, the country he has left. He lives (slightly above his means) in London with his wife and his two boys. At the start of the film, he’s in Paris, receiving an award from a minister of culture who looks like Piccoli (the film is a co-production, so there’s French money). Alex (Michael York) looks like the auteur of the film (Jerzy Skolimowski). Like him, he coaches a team of amateur Polish footballers. His eldest son Adam (sixteen years old) is in the team. Adam looks like a brother to Skolimowski’s son (in fact, that’s him).

Blissful though it is, this exile is not exactly perfect. In fact, Alex owes something to this unbearable martyr-country, his country: Poland. So, he recreates it everywhere: on a “stage” and on the giant lawn of a football ground. That’s his job. There are many episodes, all charming, handled like sketches. They help us imagine the unease (the nervousness, rather) in the life of the Rodak family. These episodes are often very funny, with an outsider’s point of view on Thatcher’s England. A broken chronicle, a cracked family painting, a portrait of the artist as a father, as a half-crook, as a beautiful soul. A portrait of his son as a new type of rebel, as a stranger already. 

For, as the father reconstitutes Poland in vitro (and that’s the irony of the film), the film stealthily moves East in vivo. The film ends at the Warsaw airport. Adam, with red hair and punk-style make-up, has chosen his freedom, that of seeing what Poland, real Poland, looks like. A short, blond provocateur, he suddenly resembles the Jerzy S. of the 60s a lot: the gifted artist of the “young Polish cinema” (now dead). 

Moonlighting was one of the most beautiful films of the last few years and, in 1982, the cinephile favourite at Cannes. Autobiographical, sarcastic and logical, Moonlighting was even more than that: a miracle. A story which, from A to Z, was both realistic and allegorical, physical and metaphysical. One of those films – we thought – that a filmmaker only makes once in his life (like an incredible scoring opportunity in football). Were we right? Skolimowski probably thinks that we weren’t. Success is Moonlighting at high speed, on steroids, with a great ambition. Skolimowski has clearly decided to take his rightful place as a great filmmaker (a place that was already his), as the best English filmmaker (paradoxically acquired during exile), and as a great Polish soul (finally). Until now, he demurred owing to modesty (Wajda having already assumed the role). He has taken over it with pride now. Success is therefore the testimony of a defeated Pole, with something of the joyful heathenism of Gombrowicz still in him, but with the required seriousness already to figure more than honourably in the prize list of major international film festivals. 

How can we be angry with him? That would be petty. But the title says it all. Success is the Best Revenge. Seventeen years after the complete ban of his last Polish film in his own country (even after Gdansk), Skolimowski has obviously felt that his (immense) talent can’t be satisfied with a critical half-success anymore. But the cost to pay is evident: no more signified, no more fine words, no more amplification of the things that he was doing so well for so long. The result is almost an advertising prospectus, superb but a bit cold, where an artist shows all his eggs and all his baskets, anticipates his “”, summarises all that he knows, all that he knows how to do and all that he intends to let us know. 

The result is strange. On one hand – “strictly on a cinematic level”, as is said in circles that don’t really love cinema – Success is well ahead of almost everything that is currently being produced (and that we have seen until now at the festival): a pure and simple genius of scenography, a ballistic conception of cinema as a weightless space where everything regains weight in falling, a razor-sharp irony, nervous actors and irreverence. On the other hand, the film comes across a little like a cinema version of a high-speed train, the “Skolimowski Express”, and the wide-eyed viewer watching it suddenly realises that it isn’t certain that this train will stop very long for him to hop on. 

Slightly out of breath, we recognise all the chapters already written of the Skolimowski saga in each carriage. There is a Polish carriage that reminds us of The Barrier with its shady crowds that trot around silently and aimlessly. There is an English carriage coming in from the interchange at Deep End with its cold and normal teenage eroticism (it’s the part with Adam, written by Sko Jr. himself). And there is the international carriage reserved for the theme of the international artist. And an engine that spits fire. 

Success is superb. The next train could be brilliant. 

* Translators' note: The French film title is “Success at any cost” (Le succès à tout prix).

First published in Libération, 19-20 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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