“Just like you wanted, grandma. I’m seeing a woman.”
Jerzy Skolimowski is rightly proud of Four Nights with Anna (2008). Seventy years old, with his first film in seventeen years, he stood up at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and challenged the assembled critics: “To those who like me — I’m back. And to those who don’t like me — I’m back.”1 In this defiance there’s the stance of the ex-pugilist here. That was part of his persona in his early days in Poland before cinema, as a poet-cum-amateur boxer — which fed into his early film work, his documentary on the sport, Boxing (1961), and his acting role as a boxer in the film he scripted for Andrzej Wajda, The Innocent Sorcerers (1960). Boxing could be taken as a metaphor for Skolimowski’s film career: dynamic, vital, unpredictable, veering between displays of finely balanced brilliance and disastrous collapses.
By all accounts (like many, I’ve never seen it), his last film, Ferdydurke (1991), a made-in-English version of a classic Polish novel, was an example of the latter. Since then, there’s been silence from Skolimowski as a filmmaker. Instead, he’s been living in his home in Malibu facing the ocean and painting,2 with occasional forays into film acting, most recently as Uncle Stepan in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007). In that film Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) refers to Stepan as “old school,” and there’s something satisfyingly old school about Four Nights with Anna itself: a masterfully-controlled European art movie, shot in consistently dull tones in a waterlogged area of rural Poland, it scrambles chronology, plays with the audience, and for much of its running time is as mysterious as its withdrawn protagonist Leon Okrasa (Artur Steranko), withholding any easy explanations or emotional pay-offs.
There’s certainly an art-film familiarity to Anna’s story of a socially inept male and his voyeuristic obsession with a female neighbour. The title is surely referencing Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), Bresson’s take on male romantic obsession; and the story itself clearly parallels Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film about Love (1988), the longer cinema version that Kieslowski made from the sixth episode of his twelve-part TV series Dekalog. In both Skolimowski’s and Kieslowski’s films, the protagonist explains his voyeurism as an act of love. But beyond that aspect there are substantive differences between the two directors’ approaches. Skolimowski is not interested in the spiritual issues that engage Kieslowski, and he refuses all the ways that Kieslowski makes the subject of a peeping Tom palatable to an audience. In Four Nights with Anna there’s no reversal of the voyeurism scenario as in Kieslowski’s film, where Tomek’s spying on Magda is replaced by her spying on him. And Skolimowski refuses to sweeten a bitter theme by making his protagonists audience-attractive as Kieslowski did with Tomek’s youthful vulnerability and Magda’s sheer beauty. Instead, Skolimowski’s male protagonist is a morose, middle-aged misfit, creeping around corners and stumbling forward with heavy tread around the small village setting; and Anna (Kinga Preis), the object of Leon’s obsessions, is likewise middle-aged, a blonde tending to the heavy side, well past the bloom of youth. Most critically of all, not until the end of the film does Skolimowski let us get close to Anna as a character; most of the time we are kept as distanced from her as Leon himself.
So, Skolimowski’s film is far more tough-minded and unwilling to make things easy on the audience, both in terms of characterisation and in the way Skolimowski deliberately muddies up the narrative. The story itself is straightforward enough: Leon Okrasa is an ex-con who works in a hospital crematorium and looks after his ailing grandmother in their run-down house that sits just across a field from the hospital complex. Leon, who we first observe skulking in or tramping manically around the alleys of his village, is soon revealed to be obsessed with Anna, a nurse from the hospital who lives in full view of Leon’s home. In short order, he breaks into her rooms in order to lace her sugar with crushed sleeping pills, and then over the course of four nights visits her while she is sleeping, tidying up, painting her toenails, leaving a ring for her, and fixing a broken clock.
Skolimowski uses flashbacks to reveal the backstory here, that Leon was witness to Anna’s rape and was falsely accused of and imprisoned for the crime (a flashback-cut from Leon washing-up at Anna’s to his washing-up duties in the prison also reveals that he was raped himself). The question left to the audience is how to relate that past to Leon’s present, to work out the motivation for his voyeuristic pursuit of Anna. Skolimowski deliberately delays the revelation of their earlier connection, building up a slow “leaking” of past moments into the present, so that initially the precise relation of one shot to the next in those sequences is rather opaque if not confusing.
Also, from the beginning Skolimowski mischievously misdirects the audience with, for example, an ominously scored scene of Leon buying an axe, and another of him fishing a severed hand out of a rubbish bin. We wouldn’t be surprised if Leon turned out to be an axe-wielding serial killer, although in fact he’s never more than a glum loser — so overlooked by his hospital boss that the latter neglects to inform him that he’s been made redundant; someone who, with all comic seriousness, after his first night of observing a comatose Anna, visits his grandmother’s grave to inform her “Just like you wanted, grandma. I’m seeing a woman.”
“Seeing” is in fact all that Leon does over his four nocturnal visits to Anna. The closest he gets to her is briefly laying his head on the pillow next to her, or, in comic mode, on a subsequent night, finding his arm briefly trapped in hers as she turns over in her sleep. He simply watches, whether by choice, as when he places himself on a stool to toast the sleeping Anna on her birthday; or by circumstance, when on the same night he oversleeps and hides under the bed — with Skolimowski’s camera observing everything, Anna dressing or a spider crawling on the floor, from Leon’s perspective.
In restricting its narrative perspective to that of a peeping Tom and denying voice to the female object of his voyeurism until the very end, Four Nights with Anna is an unsettling film. But Skolimowski’s strategy is a deliberate one; he wants to unsettle us. Beneath the calm surface of the film’s style — the sombre tones, the moody score, the calibrated editing, the firm control of camera movement — no sure ground is offered to help us interpret Leon’s actions. This is true above all for his “primal scene” when he stumbles on Anna being raped. Why does he allow himself to be railroaded into a conviction for this crime that he never committed? Is it penance for his own complicity in the crime? When he’s aware of what is taking place, Leon stands frozen to the ground, staring at the scene in front of him while the fish he has just caught flops and writhes on the ground with clear overtones of sexual symbolism. So, does his subsequent voyeurism over the four nights (an asexual looking “after” her) comprise his atonement for his sense of criminality for the original act of looking “at” her? It may be a valid interpretation, but the film never closes off the possibility of others.
On the surface, the story of Four Nights with Anna seems familiar and straightforward, but Skolimowski is constantly working to slyly disrupt and undermine the narrative. There are the little surrealist touches — the severed hand, the floating cow, a shoe left in the fridge — that are eventually explained but that disconcert us when they appear. There are the odd incidents, such as the juxtaposition of Leon hiding his axe in his jacket with men pushing a broken-down car in the background, or the pedestrian he calmly observes from the attic window being knocked over by a car. Not germane to the plot, they create the sense of a story that’s never quite explicable, that at any time is subject to random shifts in direction. And above all there’s Skolimowski’s mixing of tone, the way the intense psychological study keeps slipping in and out of black comedy, principally in Leon’s pratfalls — he falls on his back in the mud outside Anna’s room, loses the ring he wants to leave for her in a crack between the floorboards, crashes onto the floor as he climbs through her window, gets caught up in her net curtains, and so on.
All of this keeps us at a distance from Leon despite our perspective being only his. Leon is an obsessive, and there’s never a chance of this romance being anything more than one-sided. Skolimowski is no Kieslowski; he refuses to offer Leon any kind of release or redemption. In the final sequence, now out of prison for the second time, he again crosses the same field that separates his house from Anna’s — only now Anna’s building is gone. Skolimowski’s final image of Leon has him standing stock-still before an empty brick wall, locked into his obsession as he has been from the beginning, but now confronted in that wall with his unending solitude and pain.