THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS, 2004
With ten films, five novels, various multimedia installations, stage productions, numerous poems, paintings and pieces of music to his credit, Lech Majewski deserves critical consideration for his remarkable output alone. I hadn’t heard of him prior to reading the 2009 Film Society brochure, so the chance to view some of the work of this little-known cine-poet and to have them introduced by the man himself was not to be missed, especially if comparisons with Pasolini and Tarkovsky could be trusted. Expectations were high.
Perhaps they were too high. THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS and THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO HARRY (1992) were both underwhelming, but that’s not to say they are bad by any means. Earthly Delights is skilfully constructed, and the frequently evocative images compliment Majewski’s examination of memory and loss, impermanence and death, the value of art, and our complex relationship with cinema, while Harry is a wry commentary on spiritual aridity, cultural drought, and consumerist disaffection. They were interesting, but a bit too pat. I wasn’t sure if the implicit narcissism in Earthly Delights was intentional or merely the result of actors cutting-loose with a camera. I wondered if the film was a comment on first world self-obsession, but when I put the question to Mr Majewski he took umbrage at the suggestion, claiming that the couple’s “love” refutes vanity and egocentricity. Hmm? So, the film was supposed to be a portrait of love?
The problem is, the relationship between Claudine (Claudine Spiter – who might have been stronger with more hands-on direction) and Chris (Chris Nightingale – who does pretty well all things considered) lacks the requisite depth to support the philosophical (let alone emotional) reach of the film, undermining Majewski’s aspirations to make them seem rather adolescent. The awkward self-awareness of the actors makes the characters appear privileged and self-absorbed. Spiter was particularly indulgent (or indulged, to be more precise). Her posturing all but scuttled Majewski’s intention of achieving greater reality and intimacy, with the film often seeming as self-regarding as the characters, flattering—and flirting with—the viewer like a promiscuous teenager before getting all metaphysical on their ass. It’s a pity, because there are some good ideas struggling to find fertile ground here. Instead, this lower-case "death in venice" struggles to be more than an apology for hedonism.
As in The Garden of Earthly Delights, the central couple in The Gospel According to Harry are another irritating photogenic pairing (not people so much as types). The film is divided into chapters with biblical headings such as Genesis, Judges, Crucifixion, etc., that broadly signal the content of each scene with a wink and a nudge. Most of the film’s thematic, intellectual, and philosophical points are made early on, so the rather strained comic and ironic aspects are left to virtually carry the film.
Thematically more complex and more visually impressive (quite gorgeous to look at, in fact), ANGELUS (2002) was the richest film in the mini retrospective. The actors were evidently having fun, as did the audience, but at the risk of seeming churlish, it all seemed terribly familiar. The range of influences were plentiful: from the Czech New Wave (Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Vojtech Jasny) to Romanian absurdism, through to filmmakers as diverse as Sergei Paradjanov, Aki Kaurismaki, Volker Schlöndorff, Roy Andersson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Wojciech Has (Majewski’s teacher and mentor), the paintings of Brueghel, and the drawings of Robert Crumb, all of which hint at a reason why Majewski’s films left me unsatisfied: his eclectic cinematic palette felt borrowed.
I came away from the retrospective feeling that Majewski plays with cinema rather than living and breathing it. It’s hard to say for certain, and in any event his undeniable creativity speaks for itself, but he might achieve more as a filmmaker if cinema was his only (or primary) artistic pursuit.
Reservations aside, Majewski’s films are worth seeing, and the Federation of Film Societies deserves credit and thanks for programming them. I accept that my take on them won’t be widely shared, as most people will have (quite rightly) enjoyed them. All three continued to resonate after seeing them, but interestingly The Garden of Earthly Delights is the one that lingers in retrospect. It’s the film that may have come closest to the cinematic poetry one assumes Majewski is striving for. It’s a pity his latest film, Blood of a Poet (2007), wasn’t part of the selection. Despite the brazen reference to Cocteau in the title, reviews suggest that it is Majewski’s best film to date, offering stronger insights into his art.
While he could be described as a provocateur, Majewski advocates for a metaphysical cinema that encourages unfettered imaginations to celebrate art, love, life, and pleasure. His frequent use of religious symbolism belies an uncertain tension between criticism and confession. One senses an empathic admiration for the spiritual quest of the artistic mystic-miners in Angelus; an aspiration for free-spirited abandon in Earthly Delights; and a hint of attraction to the Miraculous at the end of Harry, partly conveyed by a seemingly genuine expression of awe for natural wonder and mystery of birth, but also in the use of rain over the end-credits, alluding to possible Blessings from an unspecified Supreme-Benevolence. It wasn’t beneath this Polish émigré to end Angelus with a half-mocking “God Bless”, so perhaps it’s true what they say: once a Catholic always a Catholic … but especially when you can mine it for art.