Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 15 June 2011
Source Polish Cultural Institute 35mm Print
Jerzy Skolimowski’s eagerness for experimentation is palpable even in his remarkable debut feature, Rysopis (known in English as Identification Marks: None). Having already acted for Andrzej Wajda and written dialogue for Roman Polanski, Skolimowski enrolled in Lodz Film School. But while his classmates were busily shooting short-film assignments, Skolimowski was collecting scenes that would fit together as a feature film. Shot with the small amounts of film stock available to him, Rysopis is a curious mix of rough-edged make-do experimentalism and expert craftsmanship, a bracingly inventive first film that ranks alongside Breathless for sheer bravado.
Rysopis is the first in a series of semi-autobiographical films that Skolimowski made in which he portrays Andrzej Leszezyc, a Doinel-like protagonist struggling to make it in grim, restrictive post-war Poland. (The other films in the series are Walkover and Hands Up! His third feature film, Barrier also loosely fits in this cycle of films, though it does not star Skolimowski.) Apparently, the director did not see the films of the nouvelle vague until some years later, but the film’s disjointed real-time narrative, its sprightly, often surreptitious location-shooting, and its nose-thumbing at conventional narratological rules all suggest the young director had much in common with his contemporaries in France. Thematically, there are many connections to Godard and Truffaut in the film’s emphasis on the sour disappointments of young love and the quiet chaos of urban living, and the film’s structure – a day-in-the-life story that follows its protagonist’s last few hours before being shipped off for army service – hint at affinities with Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7. (There’s even a fortune-telling gypsy who takes Andrzej’s money without burdening him with her prediction of his lousy future.)
But the shift of context from France to Poland makes all the difference. From the film’s opening sequence – which has Andrzej walking Lodz’s crooked streets in the wee hours, amid drunkards and expressionistic silhouettes, in an astonishing long-take – it’s clear that Skolimowski’s world is closer to Welles’s crumbling Eastern Europe than to Godard’s free-wheeling Paris. Even when palling around in cafes with his friends, swapping lewd remarks about passing girls, or wooing a young ichthyology student, it’s clear that Andrzej lives in a city that doesn’t belong to him, one from which even military service seems like a reasonable escape. “I want to join the army,” he tells the enlistment board. “A new method, this,” mutters the senior officer, convinced it’s yet another draft-evasion ploy.
With his supposedly rabid dog forcibly put to sleep, his expulsion from university, and a wife who may or may not be sleeping around, Andrzej finds himself eager to break free, but with few options for doing so. This is made achingly clear when, asked by a passing radio reporter whether he’d like to be a cosmonaut, he boyishly responds by relating his fantasy of becoming a truck driver. It seems, like much of his generation, Andrzej is left with lots of pent-up energy, but maddeningly circumscribed horizons.
In this way, the young Skolimowski’s iconoclasm and ambition show through not just in directorial technique, but also in his performance: in nearly every scene, the director’s face and body display an astonishing range of moods, from luggish entropy to blithe insouciance, from shy nervous to mischievous flirtation. And as in many a Skolimowski film to come, the interiority of the protagonist is largely expressed through the body, which is always trying to break free from its milieu. Early in the film, Andrzej is framed against monstrous backdrops of scrap-metal and post-war urban decay, or cornered in a two-shot with his wife in their tiny apartment. But as the film progresses, he frees himself, however temporarily, leaping over fences or sprinting after a departing streetcar in gutsy, reel-long tracking shots and vaulting camerawork. Through these physical and cinematography acrobatics, Skolimowski finds ways of asserting personal freedom even with brutally confining circumstances. One simply has to keep moving.