Jerzy Skolimowski Essay - Critical Essays

Skolimowski, Jerzy


Jerzy Skolimowski 1938–

(Also Yurek Skolimowski) Polish director, screenwriter, and actor.

Skolimowski's early films established him as the spokesman of Poland's troubled youth. In these films, Skolimowski wished to show "that Polishness of what happens on our streets." While his later films are less insular, they maintain his quirkish humor and fascination with life's outsiders. His style is often considered Godardian; he disdains conventional narrative and studies youth's uncompromising moods.

While studying at Łódź, Skolimowski collaborated on scripts with Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda. Rysopis (Identification Marks: None) is his first feature. Skolimowski plays the introspective student who serves as the filmmaker's alter ego. It is a film of indecision: a tale of a quest that ends without resolution.

Due to censoring problems, Skolimowski's Hands Up! may never be released on either side of the Iron Curtain. According to Skolimowski, the title refers to his generation in Poland—the generation that has thrown up their hands in helplessness.

Le Départ is the first of Skolimowski's foreign language movies. Here he develops an interest in surrealistic comedy and abandons the introspection characterizing his Polish work. Two British films, Deep End and The Adventures of Gerard, demonstrate his capability within different genres: one is a psychological study, the other an historical parody. Despite his lack of familiarity with the English language, Deep End, in particular, is considered one of his finest films. An adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave proved less successful, and Skolimowski considers it the low point of his career.

In 1978, Skolimowski adapted Robert Graves's story The Shout, a British tale of primitive terror. Most critics consider The Shout to be his most successful synthesis of image, sound, and content. It also proved his most lucrative work.

Skolimowski now considers Poland a retreat rather than a work base, and does not limit himself geographically. Earlier prominent themes of alienation and the difficulties of youth have been replaced by an interest in visual imagery and surrealistic content. While some critics dislike his symbolism, claiming that it leads nowhere, others admire his inventiveness.

Axel Madsen

Jerzy Skolimowski's "Le Départ" is the best the "new cinema" has come up with thus far…. It is the kind of film that makes one forget tedious hours of watching tedious miles of young filmmakers' attempts; the kind of film that in one blow justifies it all….

"Le Départ" is modern cinema—digested and carried forward. Skolimowski accomplishes the feat of playing on what is evident and what is arbitrary in cinema, moving his audience forward with shots that begin as one thing and reveal quite another, with attitudes and lines of dialogue that question themselves, the film, and us…. Skolimowski is modern in the most post-McLuhan sense of modernity—everything can be true. Certainties and conditioned reflexes turn into question marks and puns, our points of reference are ridiculed…. The shocks and visual inventions are never gratuitous, really, and Skolimowski even brings home his message—that car hunger is often a youth's sublimation for sexual repressions—without crude Freudianisms. At the end, when we expect the traditional hotel room bedscene, Skolimowski surprises us a last time with a tender, "white" ending that is totally in character….

"Le Départ" is totally incredible from beginning to end, but Skolimowski's amazing knowledge of what cinematic cement is made of hooks us from credit crawl to fadeout in a highwire act the likes of which we haven't seen in years. This continuity of the improbable is filmmaking at its newest. Skolimowski is a man to behold.

Axel Madsen, "Reviews: 'Le Départ' ('The Start')," in Cinema (© Spectator International, Inc.), Vol. 3, No. 6, Winter, 1967, p. 49.

Howard Thompson

There have been stronger and bolder festival entries than Jerzy Skolimowski's "Le Départ," but none more disarming. By any standards, festival or otherwise, this free-wheeling, inventive comedy of a youth obsessed with fast autos has been put together with fresh, deceptive simplicity that makes it a joy to watch….

["Le Départ"] is a small, clear-cut gem—a beautifully disciplined, imaginative exercise in moviecraft—that is snugly suited to its modest cast and proportions….

The fade-out, after a lovely, flowing scene in a hotel bedroom, seems as right as the rest of "Le Départ." Right and real, funny and haunting.

Howard Thompson, "Jerzy Skolimowski's Comedy Focuses on Youth and Cars," in The New York Times (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 23, 1967, p. 20.

Vincent Canby

Mr. Skolimowski's "Barrier" is a bright, sardonic fantasy that is not only much more indigenously Polish than "Le Départ," but, like Godard's work, is also a provocative personal statement that conforms to no predigested ideologies. Reffish and irreverent, "Barrier" has the exuberance of a youthful work, executed with technical facility and control more often associated with the work of an old pro than with that of a youngster.

It is not a particularly easy film. However, its bizarre juxtaposition of commonplace and fantastic incidents to give them surreal importance is so much a part of the film's point of view that seldom do its obscurities seem annoyingly arbitrary. Quite simply, it's fun to watch.

Spiritually, "Barrier" is a continuation of "Identification Marks: None" and "Walkover," Mr. Skolimowski's tales of alienated youth in a socialist society….

["Barrier"] is a work of original cinema composition that also has certain timely political and social interest.

Vincent Canby, "Skolimowski's 'Barrier'," in The New York Times (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1967, p. 39.

Krzysztof-Teodor Toeplitz

[Rysopis (Identification Marks: None)] is a surprise. The fact that it was made out of pieces of film that normally are thrown into the trash basket after the professor has seen them shows that Skolimowski did not enter [film] school in order to learn something, but in order to realize a prepared plan and show his maturity. But what is even more important, Skolimowski for the first time presented in Rysopis an almost complete repertory of his way of thinking as well as his repertory of possibilities.

The title of the film suggests an explanation of its content. These are indeed the identification marks of the author: his autoportrait, a description of his daily life, of his love complications, a collection of casual reflections woven by student Leszczyc about himself. Leszczyc was played by Skolimowski himself, and he used the name also in his next film Walkover. It seems to be for Skolimowski a cryptonym used in his autobiography. Because Identification Marks indeed is his autobiography…. [In] a situation when all ideals, programs, and theses fail, documents become significantly meaningful—documents on human philosophies, reactions, impulses—even those that cannot be explained rationally.

Simultaneously, in Identification Marks, and more so in Skolimowski's next film Walkover, a second aspect came up: attempts to discipline these observations and confessions in...

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Philip Strick

It begins like nothing so much as a [Jean] Gabin picture, with meaty jazz score and stolen car hurtling at us through the night. And very rarely during the frolics that follow does Le Départ give any reminder that its inventive, lively, and sometimes rather glib young director is, in fact, Polish. Had this been his first film …, Skolimowski's nationality would have been largely irrelevant; but the trio of films he has so far made in Poland act as an inevitable reference point, particularly as in shedding his country he also seems to have cast off both the anger and the armoury that made his previous work bristle with such satisfying complexity. As Le Départ romps from one piece of slapstick to the...

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Roger Greenspun

Skolimowski stars himself in "Identification Marks: None" as a 24-year-old draft dodger who one day accepts the call and enters military service….

Unfortunately, although everything that happens to him means to be of great significance, none becomes suggestive enough to arouse interest.

Not that the film doesn't try. Skolimowski strains for effects, for improbable shooting angles, for elaborate and fortuitous silhouettes and reflections—to such a degree that he would seem determined to find a visual formula for everything and everybody in his movie.

His use of subjective camera, sometimes in vast bravura passages requiring extended movement, works to depress...

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Jan Dawson

Skolimowski's previous films all maintained a brittle tension between romanticism and cynicism, principally through the person of a questing, usually adolescent, hero unable—despite a succession of experiences revealing both the egotism and the utter separateness of other people—to suppress his expectation of a better world. They were at once a celebration of youthful energy and of a more mature disenchantment, alternately detached and wryly compassionate, with the director controlling the ebb and flow of audience sympathies as if the better to convince us of the absurdity of sharing his affection for his unreliable characters.

To this extent his hilarious Deep End runs true to form, while...

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Nigel Andrews

Skolimowski's bewildering The Adventures of Gerard was kept in cold storage for months before its appearance. One sees the problem. The film is too naive to be Art and too sophisticated to be Entertainment. It also looks as if Skolimowski made it up as he went along, not so improbably in the light of some of his own confessions ('Laziness lies behind everything I have done'). Gerard in fact is the sort of film that only an established director would be allowed to get away with….

The result is a sort of cross between [Sergei Bondarchuk's] Waterloo and [Richard Lester's] The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film…. Like Lester, however, who seems stylistically the...

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Michael Walker

Although Rysopis clearly shows the amateur/clandestine nature of its creation, it provides an outline of Skolimowski's preoccupations; now it seems like a rough draft for the mature works which followed. (p. 35)

[If the plot] provides the general scheme of the film, its development derives from a movement within this scheme: that of the hero towards a moment of decision about his life…. As [Andrzej] moves from encounter to encounter, the familiar pattern of the journey-movie emerges, but the journey also has something of the form of a search: this progression has since become central to Skolimowski's films. In fact, in Rysopis the search aspect is weaker than in the subsequent films:...

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Gordon Gow

[The films made by Jerzy Skolimowski] have indicated that he learned quite young how to study his fellow humans with a shrewd balance of objectivity and compassion. The process continues in Deep End…. Its internationalism, in the important sense, resides in the universality of the theme: the pitfalls of adolescence.

As Skolimowski himself grows older (he will never see 30 again, so they say), his central figures become increasingly younger, as if he were tracing life's enigma to its source. (p. 90)

The greater part of the film is played for humour, and the interesting thing is that this is never too extreme (as it was, I thought, in sections of Le Départ). It is...

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Roger Greenspun

The bath in "Deep End" is not so much a place for getting clean as a place for indulging fantasies, generally sexual, and Skolimowski, who drops symbols the way detective writers drop clues, is not about to ignore any of its possibilities. All through the film, the peeling blues and greens on the walls are being painted over with hot colors, mostly red, to match the growth of passion and to set things up for the climax, in which the décor is at least as important as the action—and indeed is inseparable from it….

Like Truffaut's Antoine Doinel, to whom he owes a good deal, [Mike] muddles through. But unlike Antoine, what he muddles through to has only a nightmare relation to the cultural...

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Richard Combs

Skolimowski's erratic, piecemeal, yet distinctly Nabokovian adaptation of King, Queen, Knave seems subsequently to have been abandoned to its own hermetic limbo; one of those freakishly unreal landscapes that Skolimowski has scattered across the continent….

Skolimowski thus adds his own twist to Nabokov's explanation of how, in dealing with German characters in a German setting, his ignorance of all things German 'answered my dream of pure invention'; and the film slyly demonstrates that the Nabokovian mechanics are still in good working order, though in the hands of a new engineer. (p. 53)

Centred vaguely on the efforts of the mad inventor commissioned by Dreyer to develop...

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Peter Cowie

Rysopis ends as it began—in a void. It is a film with a question mark in every sentence, and the idea of the quest is given physical expression by Skolimowski's skilful subjective camerawork, leading his audience down staircases, through gigantic scrapyards, and along crowded streets that heighten the feeling of dislocation.

Rysopis may owe something to Godard in terms of technique and incident …; but it is both too dour and too bitter to be French, and Skolimowski's own performance in the role of Andrzej carefully avoids magniloquent gestures and makes no appeal to sentimentality.

In Walkover, the personality of Andrzej is more clearly defined. The...

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John Coleman

When it arrives—and, by some minor miracle of audiophonics, it does—the throaty clamour indicated by the title of Jerzy Skolimowski's latest excursion into English-speaking cinema is unlike most promises: quite up to expectations, one hell of a howl. Thus giving away the biggest, single effect in The Shout, I have made a choice which clearly reflects on the film as a whole: as a whole, it is a hole. Taken at what remove I know not … from a source of general repute, it comes out as about the craziest cinematic structure in a fair while. Skolimowski—too long absent from our screens—is an expatriate Pole of enormous talent, mostly leaning into the surreal. Whether he has genius is something else and this...

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Andrew Sarris

[The Shout] reminded me more of early [Joseph Losey-Harold Pinter] than of the Skolimowski responsible for Bariera [Barrier] and Deep End. Most people seemed to like this menacing work more than I did. It may be that I am getting tired of malignant horror films and the easy way in which they exploit our rampant paranoia. The use of noise rather than blood to generate fear and loathing is somewhat imaginative in terms of this particular genre. But ultimately I was put off by Skolimowski's Caligariesque fudging on the facts of the plot. Did the [Alan] Bates character learn to render his death-dealing shout from the Australian aborigines? Did the story of the film really happen? Or is it a tale full...

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Tom Allen

I am more ready to accept Skolimowski as a bonafide stylist in the school of mechanico-yet-rapturous absurdism, which tended to self-destruct at the turn of the decade, than as an artist. And I'll settle for King, Queen, Knave as a molehill of dreck….

For the first and perhaps purest example of a spoof that works, I would have to recommend Skolimowski's The Adventures of Gerard. It has the good sense to steer a delightful ninny of a hero across the massive canvas of Napoleon's campaign against Wellington in Spain. Invention is never allowed to flag, yet it remains chilly and stylistically distanced at the core….

Combining touches of black humor and a handsome...

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William Johnson

The Shout was not the most inventive, the most beautiful or the most crisply made entry in the last New York Film Festival, but I found it by far the most engrossing. This surprised me, since in the two of Skolimowski's previous films that I'd seen (Bariera, made in his native Poland, and Le Départ, made in Belgium) he had relied on the sixties theme of dissatisfied youth, dressing it up with some neat but obvious visual gimmickry. With The Shout, the theme has gone but gimmicks recur…. [Since] Skolimowski is working here in yet another foreign language, amid the temptation to shift his energies from unfamiliar words to familiar images, he may be praised for showing visual restraint. But...

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Sheila Benson

The Shout is a film of magic, terror and sensuality; it seduces you through your eyes and ears while keeping your mind spinning with the strands of its intricate story.

Skolimowski is deft in handling these multi-level fragments which mix present and future, and at suspicion, suggestion and innuendo. He carries a mood from one scene to the next with textures, with sound and with fragments of dialogue. (p. 25)

How do you convincingly create a sound which kills people at close range, knocks birds from the sky and topples grazing sheep? The sound which bursts from Bates—who crouches, head bent to his shoe-tops, gathering force before delivering it—is a roar, a rumble, a...

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