STEVE GARDEN, with a second opnion on the Film Society’s recent screening of three Lech Majewski films.

WITH TEN FILMS, five novels, various multimedia installations and stage productions, plus numerous poems, paintings and pieces of music to his credit, Lech Majewski deserves consideration for his remarkable output alone. I hadn’t heard of him prior to reading the brochure for the 2009 Film Society season, so the chance to view a small selection of the work of this little-known cine-poet was not to be missed, especially if comparisons with Pasolini and Tarkovsky could be trusted. Expectations were high.

Perhaps they were a little too high. The Garden of Earthly Delights (2002) and The Gospel According to Harry (1992) proved to be underwhelming, but that’s not to say they are bad films by any means. 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 (if obvious) commentary on spiritual aridity, cultural drought and consumerist disaffection – all very interesting, but for me they were just a little too pat. I wasn’t sure if the implicit narcissism in Delights was intended or merely the result of actors cutting-loose with a camera. Was this a comment on First World self-obsession, or…? Apparently not, in fact Majewski took umbrage at the suggestion, claiming that the couple’s “love” refutes vanity and egocentricity. Hmm?

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 reach of the film, undermining Majewski’s aspirations and making it all appear rather adolescent. The self-awareness of the actors makes the characters seem privileged and self-absorbed. Spiter was particularly indulgent (or indulged, to be more precise). Her posturing all but scuttled Majewski’s aspiration to achieve greater reality and intimacy, and the film often seemed as self-regarding as its characters, flattering (flirting with) the viewer like a promiscuous teenager then getting all metaphysical on their ass. It’s a pity, because there are some good ideas striving to find fertile ground here. Instead, this lower-case death in venice struggles to be more than a manifesto for hedonism.

As in Delights, the central couple in Harry is another irritatingly photogenic pairing (not people so much as types). The film is divided into chapters with biblical headings (Genesis, Judges, Crucifixion, etc) that broadly signal the content of each scene with a wink and a nudge. Most of the philosophical points are made early on, so the comic and ironic aspects (which get a little strained) virtually carry the film. Angelus (2002) was the richest of the films in terms of the qualities usually associated with art-cinema. It was thematically complex, visually impressive, and certainly the best acted, shot and produced of the three (it’s gorgeous to look at). Everyone in the film was having fun (as was the audience), but at the risk of seeming churlish, it was all terribly familiar.

The range of influences were wide and plentiful: from the Czech new wave (Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Vojtech Jasny) to Romanian absurdist cinema and filmmakers as diverse as Aki Kaurismaki, Volker Schlöndorff, Sergei Paradjanov, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Roy Andersson and Wojciech Has (Majewski’s teacher and mentor), the paintings of Brueghel, and even the drawings of Robert Crumb. This hints at a possible reason why Majewski’s films left me unsatisfied: his eclectic cinematic palette felt borrowed, as if he’s playing with cinema rather than living and breathing it. It’s hard to say, and in any event his exceptional aptitude speaks for itself. One can only wonder what Majewski could have achieved if cinema was his only artistic passion.

Reservations aside, Majewski’s films were still worth a look, and the Federation of Film Societies deserve credit and thanks for bringing them to us. I accept that my take on them won’t be widely shared, and most people will (quite rightly) enjoy them. All three continued to resonate after seeing them, but The Garden of Earthly Delights is the one that lingers most (irritations aside). It’s the film that came closest (in my view) to the kind of cinematic poetry I assume Majewski has been striving for. It’s a pity his latest film, Blood of a Poet (2007), wasn’t part of the retrospective. Despite the blatant and unashamed reference to Cocteau in the title, the few reviews I’ve read suggest that it might offer a deeper insight into Majewski’s art.

Majewski could be described as a provocateur to a degree, but he’s mainly an advocate for a metaphysical cinema that encourages unfettered imaginations to celebrate art, love, life and pleasure. Behind his frequent use of religious symbolism lies an uncertain tension between criticism and confession. One senses an empathic admiration for the spiritual quest of the artistic mystic-miners in Angelus; an air of ‘free-spiritedness’ in Delights; and a hint of the miraculous at the end of Harry, not only in the expression of genuine awe for procreation, but in the use of rain over the end-credits to possibly allude to the Blessing of an unspecified Supreme-Benevolence. It also wasn’t beyond this Polish émigré to end Angelus with a half-mocking “God Bless”. What do they say: once a Catholic always a Catholic? Maybe, but especially when it suits them.

See also:
» A Lech Majewski Interview
» The Garden of Earthly Delights (2004)
» Angelus (2000)
» The Gospel According to Harry (1992)