FOUR NIGHTS WITH ANNA — such a romantic title, conjuring wistful images of a brief but passionate affair that its impetuous young lovers will cherish for a lifetime. Well, yes and no. This is a movie that very much belongs to its director, Jerzy Skolimowski, so at some point things are bound to plummet off the deep end.
As it turns out, the subversive Polish filmmaker’s 2008 return to directing (after a 15-year hiatus), is a heartbreaking romantic black-comedy in which the obsessed lover (Artur Steranko) is smitten as can be, but his beloved (Kinga Preis) isn’t conscious of their trysts. (What do you expect from the guy who got his start co-writing Knife in the Water with Roman Polanski?) Though they share precious hours together at her place, she spends them in a drugged slumber, which puts her at a disadvantage, fling-wise. OK, it’s an unconventional relationship — intense, intimate, unbalanced, mortifying — but it’s also touching and oddly sweet. You just sense from the title that it probably doesn’t have much of a future.
Four Nights with Anna is one of the great movies about voyeurism (think Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love, to name a few). As such, it’s also a movie about movie-watching and movie-making. As Leon (Steranko), the conscience and consciousness of the film, observes the object of his desire, her window becomes his screen. Unlike James Stewart in Rear Window (but very much like Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.) he daringly crosses the void that separates them and enters her world through that permeable rectangle. Four times.
Clockwise from top left: Olaf Lubaszenko in A Short Film About Love (1988), Karlheinz Böhm in Peeping Tom (1960), Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954), and Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet (1986).
When he first slips behind the screen and infiltrates her darkened room, Leon’s flashlight is both camera and projector, as if he’s simultaneously shooting and viewing the private movie captured in his beam. He examines the details of Anna’s surroundings: the picture postcards on the wall above her bed, her towels, her bedclothes…And what does he do? He finds a loose button on her hospital uniform and sews it back on for her. He loves her. He’s happy to perform a few domestic chores for her. Later, he reaches for her uncovered breast from behind the bars of her headboard, knowing he can look but not touch.
The next day he announces, “It’s just like you wanted, Grandma. I’m seeing a woman.”
WE ARE SHOWN how to watch this film before the first image appears. Over a black screen, we hear the unsteady sound of footsteps. A downtrodden-looking man trudges down a muddy road on a gray winter day. Church bells peal. In the first of many long takes, we simply observe this man go about his mysterious business, always wondering what’s going through his head. (There’s very little dialog in the movie; we just learn by watching and listening.) He ducks around a corner, apparently trying to conceal himself behind a downspout, as two women pass walking a German Shepherd. The women are oblivious to him, but the dog knows he’s there and keeps pulling at its leash, as if suspicious of what this character is up to. The man steps behind a tree, his back straight up against it as if trying to disappear into the bark.
Already we recognize a uniquely Eastern European style of comedic choreography in motion — the kind of thing we remember from, say, Skolimowski’s Moonlighting, in which the trajectories of a cat, a man walking a dog and Jeremy Irons on a bicycle crisscross and narrowly avoid collision within the frame of a single shot in a kind of absurd, cosmic trapeze act. Those first few seconds before the image appears seem to indicate that Four Nights with Anna is going to be a few steps ahead of us from the very start.
The man enters a store and picks up an axe. As he moves toward the camera (and, we discover a few seconds later, the sales counter) a suspenseful buzzing rises out of the sound mix, which is either part of the exquisitely pulsating strings-and-accordion score by Michal Lorenc, some mechanical noise (a furnace? an axe sharpener?), or some combination thereof. The woman at the counter wraps the blade in brown paper. Out on the street again, the man walks past a moving car being steered by a man who keeps glancing behind him as several other men push (another peculiarly funny, inexplicably disconcerting Skolimowski touch). The man with the nicely wrapped axe shifts the way he’s carrying the package to shield it from their view.
What is he trying to hide? Why is he behaving so furtively? What has he done–and what is he about to do? Next, in what appears to be a dank cellar, he reaches into a barrel and pulls out a severed human hand. In apparent disgust, he drops it back in, then removes a black plastic trash bag and stuffs it into a furnace. He washes his own filthy hands, stained with… what? Ash? Bruises? Blood? And then he faces a mirror and looks right at us, one eye in shadow, the other (not quite in alignment) in light. It is the face of a madman.
OR, MAYBE NOT. Poor, awkward, slow-witted Leon is a clueless witness to his own life even as he muddles his way through it. He isn’t quite sure how to interpret his experiences and neither are we. He’s practically a nobody in this village, living with his dying grandmother opposite the hospital where he works in the crematory. No wonder only the dogs seem to notice him. When he watches Anna in her apartment from behind a tiny window, he’s like a projectionist peering from the booth at the screen. And the projectionist may be in control of the picture, nobody’s further away from it.
In that last paragraph I’ve given you more concrete details than you will learn from the first half-hour or so of watching Four Nights with Anna. Leon has a difficult time processing what’s going on around him, and the movie reflects his perception. Like him, we are confused witnesses. He wanders into the scene of a rape-in-progress signaled by a hand writhing (beckoning?) in the netting behind a dry-docked boat. Leon drops the bucket he’s carrying. He sees a bare foot with red toenails, fish flopping on the floor, the silhouettes of bodies. The only sounds are sounds of pain. Leon is panicked, terrified. He hears a siren. A dead cow floats down a stream. It all gets mixed up with intermittent blackouts, interrogating voices, and flashes backward and forward in time.
This movie is about assembling the pieces of the puzzle that is Leon’s fractured consciousness.
LEON’S MORAL UNIVERSE is a disorienting and frightening one. He commits crimes of innocence and still feels guilty for things he did not do but can’t explain. Everyone seems to accuse him of things he might have done. But he does harbor a few ideas, a few desires, of his own. A third of the way into the film, as he is buying some honey he plans to use to sedate Anna (so that he can slip into her room overnight without detection), he spies her in the aisle of the same shop. He’s flustered, seemingly afraid she’ll perceive his intentions. Only a few minutes later do we find out that she was one of the women walking the dog in the opening scene. Does he know her? Does she know him? We don’t yet know her name (we assume she’s the titular Anna), but we find out through Leon. We learn her age, too, and something significant about her past, but they’re not presented to us in traditional expository fashion. We pick up on them, here and there, throughout the movie, “hidden” in plain sight.
On Leon’s penultimate night with Anna, he watches her celebrate her birthday with friends. He stands across the way, dressed up for the occasion, and gets drunk along with the revelers. By the time he actually joins the festivities, everyone else has gone, Anna has passed out in her bed and the lights are still on. He cleans up the place a little, helps himself to some food and some booze, and almost seems to forget he wasn’t invited. For a few quiet moments, she is his. It’s almost…romantic. But it’s fated to end with a blank screen.
[Posctscript: In this writer’s estimation, “Four Nights with Anna” ranks with the best films Skolimowski has made since originally leaving Poland — that is to say, with Deep End and Moonlighting. But Four Nights with Anna is available on DVD only in parts of Europe. Will it take as long to be recognized as Deep End, which is getting its first DVD release (Region 2) in July? Let’s hope not. But as opportunities to see the film are rare, New Yorkers are advised to note their calendars—Four Nights is in town for only two afternoons.]
Jim Emerson is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen. He is the founding editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com and author of the blog Scanners.
Four Nights with Anna, part of the program “The Cinema of Jerzy Skolimowksi” is playing at the Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday, July 2 and Sunday, July 3.