‘Essential Killing’ became the first movie in Venice Film Festival history to buck traditional rules by winning two awards.

Striking Skolimowski Films Rescued from Obscurity at PFA

Dennis Harvey July 18, 2011

It's hard to think of another notable director's career as wayward, unpredictable and interesting as Jerzy Skolimowski's, or one so frequently dogged by various forms of inaccessibility—whether due to government censorship, seizure by financiers, or the indifference of commercial distributors. He's been active in the medium for over a half-century now, and now in his mid-70s has made a film whose physical demands might challenge someone half his age. Essential Killing is a virtually wordless odyssey in which a possible Taliban terrorist flees capture over alien landscapes that included remote, freezing parts of Norway and the artist's native Poland.

Despite winning a Grand Jury Prize at Venice, starring a controversy-magnetizing American actor (Vincent Gallo), and the further attention-getting value of taking a determinedly apolitical stance on a divisive issue—foes have accused the film of asking us to “sympathetize with a terrorist,” though Skolimowski says that was hardly his intent—Essential Killing has joined much (a majority?) of its director's oeuvre in failing to attract U.S. theatrical release. So its Pacific Film Archive showings on August 19-20 may be your only local chance to see it on the big screen.

That opportunity arrives toward the tail end of the Pacific Film Archive's month-long series “Hands Up! Essential Skolimowski,” a retrospective that covers most of the better-known (relatively speaking) highlights and a few obscurities from this very long, erratic, unpredictable filmography. (Still other titles you'd be lucky to find a stray clip from on YouTube, let alone a stray old VHS tape or grey-market DVD—even his arguably most famous venture, 1970's Deep End, only just emerged from some long-term legal black hole.)

For those new to him, the ten features here will be full of fascinating surprises, revealing a personality that only grows more confounding with increased exposure. For fans, it will be an opportunity to see numerous long-out-of-circulation movies that for the most part remain as striking as when first seen.

But are there many fans left? Perhaps fed up with his eternal travails in terms of funding and distribution, Skolimowski abandoned cinema for another passion, painting—the few glimpses available online of his acrylic works are thoroughly haunting—throughout the 1990s and most of the next decade. This was not so much a digression as another re-prioritization by a man who has at different times defined himself as school prankster, boxer, jazz musician, poet and actor. Adaptability in often-difficult straits seems not just a personal characteristic, but a frequent theme in his work.

One might expect nothing less from an artist whose father was a Resistance fighter executed by Nazis, his mother subsequently a cultural attaché who had him schooled in Prague at the height of that nation's extraordinary 1960s cinematic New Wave. Between there and home, he had formative associations with Vaclav Havel, Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Andrej Wajda and Roman Polanski, co-writing the latter's feature 1962 feature debut Knife in the Water—a psychological thriller recently voted the best screenplay in Polish cinema history.

Flush with that success, Polanski immediately, permanently moved to work in the West. It would take Skolimowski a few years to follow (at which point his erstwhile collaborator provided entree to full-on Swinging London). His first three features, all playing in the PFA series, were near-plotless, absurdist, autobiographical reflections of youthful impatience with the stasis of life in a fossilized system. Identification Marks: None (1964), the interconnected Walkover (1966) and that same year's Barrier demonstrated a precocious mastery of B&W imagery, quicksilver mood shifts and arresting experimental-theatre juxtapositions.

Barrier attracted enough international attention to make Skolimoski a hot commodity abroad—fortunately so, since his final Communist-era Polish film Hands Up! was seized and banned in 1967 by a government no longer amused by the criticisms of its cinematic young turks. (It remained unseen until 1981, when the director heightened its surrealism by adding footage shot much later with name western actors.) As far as can be ascertained, that year's Belgian Le Depart was a lighter take on the restless-youth theme of his home-turf films, borrowing Truffaut's muse Jean-Pierre Leaud to play a beautician/would-be racecar driver in Brussels.

Like most expat directors back then, Skolimowski made a few “Europuddings”—international co-productions intended to appeal to all markets, but which often wound up appealing to none—albeit ones energized by his zest for impudence. 1970's Conan Doyle-derived period war satire The Adventures of Gerard and 1972's Nabokov-based farce King, Queen, Knave (playing the PFA) fit that mold, as did (much later) 1989's Torrents of Spring, a more serious-minded Turgenev adaptation. (Skolimowski obviously has superb literary tastes.)

In the middle, and clearly more rewarding for both maker and viewer, was Deep End—an odd, caustic, finally tragic look at the grubby side of “swinging” London, where the director lived for many years. His hormonally crazed adolescent hero, surrounded by porn emporiums and horny middle-aged women, goes a little berserk obsessing over his public pool coworker (ex-Beatle girlfriend Jane Asher), an archetypal “smashing bird” with a less-than-smashing private life. It's a simple-in-outline coming of age story that's anything but simple in execution, and whose original soundtrack by Cat Stevens and Can revealed a filmmaker as assertive about soundtrack choices as visual compositions.

Then, nothing until 1978's The Shout, a gloriously unsettling curiosity based on a 1927 Robert Graves story. Alan Bates played a menacing stranger who shows up claiming powers learned from Australian aboriginals—he can kill with his shout—and proceeds to wreak all havoc with the marriage of John Hurt and Susannah York. This apparently supernatural tale is framed by Bates as an asylum inmate relating it during a cricket match to a visitor (none other than Rocky Horror's Tim Curry). Is it all a madman's delusion, a mind game played at the visitor's expense, or what? Macabre and slyly bemused, The Shout is a teasing enigma that rewards repeat viewings.

Skolimowski had his biggest commercial success with 1982's Moonlighting, though one can hardly imagine its delicately ironic seriocomedy would do so well today. Jeremy Irons is cast as the sole English-speaking member of a Polish construction team sneaked into London for illegal temporary remodeling work, then stranded there when their home government shuts its borders in order to shut down the Solidarity movement. As is often the case in this director's work, the protagonists' plight grows more absurd as it turns more desperate.

The next decade was one sufficient to make a filmmaker turn to painting. Success is the Best Revenge was a whirlwind satirical fantasia about expat art-making itself, Skolimowski firing on all cylinders but the movie itself subsequently muzzled—all prints purportedly confiscated by a bank years ago. Nor were the fates of 1985's The Lightship (a sort of existential action flick with Robert Duvall and Klaus Maria Brandauer), aforementioned Torrents of Spring, or 1991's 30 Door Key (blond, English-accented Crispin Glover in a baroque version of the Polish boarding-school cult novel Ferdydurke) any happier. None of these are in the PFA series; good luck finding them elsewhere.

Then out of the blue in 2008 there was Four Nights with Anna—a grotesque black comedy streaked with suspense and pathos, about a crematorium worker criminally obsessed with his voluptuous neighbor. Like the director's best, it was small, unique, arrestingly crafted, provoking...and hardly seen, beyond the festival circuit.

Having once run off the road himself on a dangerous patch near a “secret” airstrip delivering prisoners to a CIA “black ops” prison/interrogation site in the Polish countryside, Skolimowski pondered just how easily an icy vehicular accident could unleash such captives. He figured to make Essential Killing basically in his own current backyard, like Anna. But longtime producer friend Jeremy Thomas persuaded him to expand its scope considerably—resulting in a 72-year-old filmmaker shooting a wordless survival adventure in Israel as well as northern Europe, amidst temperatures sometimes 35 below zero, his lead actor playing scenes barefoot in the snow.

Essential Killing became the first movie in Venice Festival history to buck traditional rules by winning two awards (Gallo's acting nod as well as the Special Jury Prize). Given the hot-button concept, narrative ambiguity and moral ambivalence alone—not to mention its immersive fascination as pure cinema—should have made it a slam-dunk for at least limited arthouse release in the U.S.

But no. The ever-unpredictable Skolimowski keeps changing with each film. Yet it seems as far as his relation with the industry he marginally inhabits goes, some things will never change.