Walerian Borowczyk

film 1 of 5


Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 29, 2015

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica are making films first, but do we know Jan Švankmajer a little better these days? If that’s the case, then let’s say that Dom is a Švankmajer kind of avant garde film. Films by Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage or Andrei Tarkovsky can feel insularly inaccessible. There are symbols operating, but they can be so personal, so private even, that we frequently don’t know what to make of them.

Dom doesn’t seem to be a completely private communication. It’s meaning something. But what, exactly? Given that Borowczyk and Lenica are still working in Poland, maybe it partly means, as it were, three Eastern European things. They are familiar from and properly associated with the work of Franz Kafka, but he is definitely not the only one working in this register. The first thing is thing is Anxiety, which is not only the film’s subject, but it’s method too. It hovers, portends, vaguely but undeniably threatens, both on the image and the sound tracks. The second thing is that in certain political situations, under certain repressive regimes, artists often choose to communicate in a parables. These parables can serve as purloined letters, as it were, in plain sight, but hiding.

We should be cautious here: just because this is Poland, doesn’t mean that the Polish thing is necessarily a masked critique of Communism. On the other hand, things that people say during Depressions or World Wars tend at least to touch upon those subjects.

The other East European thing operates independent of regime, and can be challengingly and most profitably found in all sorts of other settings too. (See our review for Last Year at Marienbad, q.v.) This is that an opaque story actually becomes as much a perceptual object as a narrative one. There is a nominal subject, but in many important ways the story is you, grappling.

We’re somewhere in those territories with this able animation. There’s great wit and agility on display, and something of an anthology of approaches as well. Borowczyk and Lenica are capable in a number of animation registers, and they richly reference several key avant garde traditions. Motifs are established, repeated and transformed in ways that are suggestive of the Dream, of surrealism and the Absurd. As such there is much here of frustrating comedy and incipient fatality.

Dom means House, or this forbidding, shifting, almost confrontational structure which begins and ends the film. Inside we go, and find this recurring woman, a collage of objects, the funny and finally quite beautiful back and forth fight between the Muybridge figures. The repatriation and repurposing of images here is positively inspiring; why don’t we/our kids make more films like this?

There’s a voracious wig that, among other things, drinks a glass of milk (!—decay that doesn’t have the decency to at least be dead; very Švankmajer!), a Duchampian man who keeps coming through the door and hanging up his hat, a confounding montage of photographs and kids’ illustrations, the recurring woman who now embraces the mannequin head, which accordingly dissolves, or rather decomposes. Now, finally, back to the forbidding, shifting, almost confrontational structure.

It’s the same image as before, basically, but given what we’ve just seen it’s not the same either. In this Dom is quite similar to Roman Polanski’s roughly contemporaneous, quite terrifying The Lamp, as well as Švankmajer’s later The Flat (1968). They’re all saying something, but not in the plot-and-character fashion that we might be more accustomed to. Those things are not what we have to worry about here. Still, worry might be the right word. Most provocative, and very positively.