Grey and waterlogged, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Four Nights with Anna is something like the Eastern European answer to Rear Window and Chungking Express, a deeply gothic, but no less romantic tale of voyeurism, breaking and entering, and secret love. Instead of a wheelchair-bound James Stewart, we have Artur Steranko as emotionally crippled ex-con Leon Okrasa, who, like Faye Wong in Wong Kar-wai’s film, opts to anonymously clean his beloved’s lodgings rather than announce his love. But in Four Nights with Anna, as the title suggests, Leon does his housework (and a few other unsolicited things) nocturnally while Anna, the object of his distorted affection, lies drugged from the crushed sleeping pills Leon has slipped into her sugar.
Four Nights with Anna is Polish auteur Skolimowski’s first film in 17 years—in the meantime he has been painting and occasionally acting, most notably as Naomi Watts’s racist Uncle Stepan in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises. This sabbatical notwithstanding, the film displays a rigorous control of mise-en-scène and mood, crafting something like a thriller out of a character study of Steranko’s mousy, bug-eyed docility. As Leon, the Bean-like actor cowers throughout, barely able to make eye contact, often staggering sideways and flopping around in the snowy mud during times of stress.
Having seen Alexander Olch’s metadocumentary The Windmill Movie a few weeks prior to the start of the New York Film Festival, I found it odd to find no mention of it in A.O. Scott’s “Quasi-reality” curtain raiser in the Times. Especially given his emphasis on documentary form and its uneasy relationship to realism, and how this fertile terrain is ably probed by narrative films like Laurent Cantet’s The Class and Ari Folman’s unclassifiable Waltz with Bashir, the omission of The Windmill Movie, a modest foil, is glaring, or at least it would be if the film warranted mention alongside these works by dint of anything other than their inclusion in the New York Film Festival. (More surprising is Scott’s inclusion of Olivier Assayas’s luminous Summer Hours, a movie about “real things,” but certainly not realist, though I suppose the definition of that term is what he’s throwing into play.) The Windmill Movie, by young, first-time filmmaker Alexander Olch may traverse this same hybridized terrain, but his command of these unstable working materials is far different.
A portrait-of-a-portrait of a particular brand of inbred eastern seaboard intellectual narcissism, Olch’s The Windmill Movie is built largely from footage shot by deceased filmmaker Richard P. Rogers that was intended for use in an epic autobiographical work of the same name. The images, shot in a variety of formats, feel not unlike the personal, idiosyncratic material Ross McElwee’s been compressing into portions of various sizes (mammoth: Sherman’s March; bite-sized: Charleen; appetite-quelling: Bright Leaves) for decades, perhaps not surprising since the two both taught at Harvard, also where Olch studied under Rogers. This strand of self-reflexive documentary filmmaking, as evinced both by Rogers’s footage and Olch’s assembly of his mentor’s film, has been sorely in need of a lifeline in America ever since Tarnation convinced any filmmaker with a few hundred bucks, a Mac laptop, and a willingness to obscure truth in favor of neatly wrapped narratives, that their lives were ready for the silver screen. There’s been a slew of this stuff out in the ether, but few of those “films” have been given as grand a platform as Lincoln Center. Fewer still are worth watching at all.