Vol 0, No 8
16 November 1998
K I N O E Y E:|
A Glossy Symbolism
Andrzej Wajda's Panna Nikt
One of several film events at the Festival of Central European Culture in London this year was a short look at recent trends in Polish cinema. Among those represented was Andrzej Wajda, Poland's leading director for over forty years, who is still finding new avenues to explore.
Symbolism has long been the trusty tool of those filmmakers living under harsh and censorial regimes. Indeed, most of the great films emerging from totalitarian countries this century have been those made by wily directors out-witting the censors to have a sly stab at the regime they live under. Presumably, now that the walls and curtains across Europe have been pulled down and we are all McDonalds-chomping free-market capitalists, we can wave goodbye to such an anachronistic cinematic device and enjoy a new era in which directors can say what they want, as directly as they want (as long as it gets bums on seats, of course).
Think again! Andrzej Wajda, the grand old man of Polish cinema, still finds a use for symbolism - and it is not Communism that he is criticising. In his recent film Panna Nikt (Miss Nobody, 1996), Wajda turns symbolism around to examine the effect of rampant individualism and consumerism on traditional Polish values in the post-1989 era, all personified through three fifteen-year-old girls. Marysia, the central character, moves from a sheltered life in the country to the big city. Eager to make friends at her new school, she gravitates towards Kasia, for whom the world just exists to be creative. The impressionable Marysia is fascinated by this new realm of art and music and starts to become immersed in it at the expense of the values she held dear in the countryside - religious and familial devotion.
She breaks off the relationship with Kasia when she realises the games they play are going too far and instead is befriended by another classmate, Ewa, an arch-materialist if ever there was one and Kasia's worst enemy to boot. Marysia's country values continue to be ignored as she is drawn into a glittering life of parties, for which she is dressed by Ewa in chic clothes and expensive jewellery. The games they play are no less disturbing and Ewa demands that Marysia renounce Kasia as a friend. Marysia is torn between the two ways of life the two girls represent and the family she is increasingly spurning. The games, though, turn out to be a series of jokes organised by the two girls who have all the time been in league with each other to humiliate Marysia, whom they dub "Miss Nobody" for her naivete and inability to stand by her own values.
A small genre
With the collapse of Communism Western critics waited eagerly to see how directors of the former communist countries, with their heightened sensitivity to the political possibilities of cinema, will portray the difficult and often disappointing years of transition. The critics have, by and large, been left waiting, and this is one of a surprisingly small number of films to tackle the task with conviction. Of the films that have been made on this theme, Panna Nikt is unusual in that it rejects the gritty texture that lends itself so well to portraying financial and spiritual poverty, as employed in Istvan Szabo's Edes Emma, Draga Bobe (Dear Emma, Sweet Bobe, 1992), which employs a prosaic documentary-like probing of every discomfort of the protagonists' lives. The technique is even used in a highly poetic work like Artur Aristakisyan's Ladoni (Hands, 1994).
Panna Nikt, by contrast, has a certain glossiness to it. The characters are reduced to simplistic archetypal figures, almost cardboard cut-outs. This does not work completely against Wajda, who is, after all, trying to show the loss of a dimension to Polish society. The clash of these archetypes, though, is less interesting than the development of more realistic characters, such as Szabo's Emma, and the extremeness of the characterisation sometimes gives the story a fairy-tale air which is as naive as Marysia herself. However, this is no bed-time story, and the darker face of cardboard the girls were cut from saves the film from being too anaemic. The pickled rabbit is a particularly memorable black moment from the film.
The characters are not the only flaw. The plot, which comes from the novel of the same name by Tomek Tryzna, also has a well-worn feel to it. The genre of "innocent country girl corrupted by the big city" is probably second only to "boy meets girl"-type scenarios as hackneyed cinematic story-lines go. Wajda's choice of a traditional plot is, perhaps, a reflection of his interest in traditional values, and the story does have an ironic form of originality in that the plot is so familiar that it is a number of years since anyone has dared use it quite so blatantly.
The fact that Wajda has resurrected symbolism goes some way to compensate for lack of character-depth. The symbolism, though, lacks the subtlety and richness which pre-1989 satirists had honed so finely. In fact, Panna Nikt's symbolism is totally benign and exists only for its own sake. It makes the film or its message no easier to swallow for a wider audience and does little to reinforce Wajda's conviction that part of Poland's soul is dying to the devoted following he has anyway, which inevitably makes you wonder why he chose to use it. Wajda could have aimed for grander things. It would have been a truly astonishing piece of cinema if he had managed to woo a larger audience than his films usually attract by using a Hollywood slickness but with a hard-hitting subtext lurking beneath the veneer of its mass appeal. Having survived for so long pushing his vision past the Communist censors, it would be the crowning glory of his career to see him applying the same tricks to express himself in an era when profitability, or rather lack of it, is the criteria for censorship in the arts.
Despite the criticisms, Panna Nikt is still definitely worth watching, particularly since there are so few good films about the traumas of transition. The highly unusual coupling of means and ends undoubtedly makes the film charming and unique - just not great.
Andrew J Horton, 16 November 1998 (republished 15 November 1999)
Click here for a Kinoeye review of Wajda's 1999 film Pan Tadeusz.
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