Playing Sun July 3 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
Be sure to check out Jim Emerson’s essay for Alt Screen:
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 motio — 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.
Leo Goldsmith for Reverse Shot:
Grey and waterlogged, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Four Nights with Anna is something like the Eastern European answer to Rear Window and Chungking Express, a deeply gothic, but no less romantic tale of voyeurism, breaking and entering, and secret love. Instead of a wheelchair-bound James Stewart, we have Artur Steranko as emotionally crippled ex-con Leon Okrasa, who, like Faye Wong in Wong Kar-wai’s film, opts to anonymously clean his beloved’s lodgings rather than announce his love. But in Four Nights with Anna, as the title suggests, Leon does his housework (and a few other unsolicited things) nocturnally while Anna, the object of his distorted affection, lies drugged from the crushed sleeping pills Leon has slipped into her sugar.
Four Nights with Anna is Polish auteur Skolimowski’s first film in 17 years—in the meantime he has been painting and occasionally acting, most notably as Naomi Watts’s racist Uncle Stepan in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. This sabbatical notwithstanding, the film displays a rigorous control of mise-en-scène and mood, crafting something like a thriller out of a character study of Steranko’s mousy, bug-eyed docility. As Leon, the Bean-like actor cowers throughout, barely able to make eye contact, often staggering sideways and flopping around in the snowy mud during times of stress.
Daniel Kasman for MUBI:
A film of three parts, all at once, perhaps. Part one: the quirky-cute premise—common to middlebrow foreign imports films—of an eccentric expressing love from afar in a strange but endearing manner. Here, Leon (Artur Steranko) builds a long term plan of slipping crushed sleeping pills into the sugar his neighbor, Anna (Kinga Preis), uses before she goes to bed, so that he can slip in unnoticed, fix things, smell her clothing, and generally putter around with forlorn affixation.
Part two: pratfall comedy. Leon slips and slides in this movie almost as much as he moves at a kind of scamper-plod gait around his desolate Polish village. Skolimowski’s zany humor, which I had forgotten about, includes Leon glancing out his window the very moment a random man gets plowed into by a random car, and, later, Leon tripping and tumbling into Anna’s apartment on the night of her birthday adorned in a suit and carrying flowers.
But part three is the kicker: the vague reason Leon is attached to Anna is that he witnessed her rape several years earlier and was too stunned or too dumb to avoid being himself accused and jailed for the crime, and then raped in prison. So the eccentric romance-comedy alluded to in the film’s first two components glide along in tandem with an extremely dark and purposefully unresolved motivation and tone, a strangeness which undercuts the pat regularity of Leon’s conventionally unusual courtship and underlines Skolimowski’s flings into surrealism.
These occasional warped wide-angles, Leon’s slips in the mud, a hand reaching into the frame to habitually, pesteringly, tap his cigarette at the ashtray—the police hassling Leon—are visions of a film undulating very slowly and very subtly under our viewing. Is Leon mad? More to the point, is the film?