And He Paints, Too: Jerzy Skolimowski

Photo of Jerzy Skolimowski by Maciej Komorowski

The barely audible translator dourly switching back and forth between Polish and German at the nüü gallery last Friday evening couldn’t resist the charm of Jerzy Skolimowski. In Polish, the eighty-four-year-old director, screenwriter, actor, and painter thanked his hosts and encouraged everyone within earshot to go out and see his latest movie. Skolimowski then expectantly turned to the translator, who cracked what appeared to be his first smile in months and—just as Skolimowski had seconds before—honked out a loud and hearty “EEEEEOOOOO!!”

Beaming, Skolimowski had the crowd echo the big bray—and there were quite a few of us packed wall to wall. Those at the edges strained to keep from brushing up against the paintings. Most of the canvases at nüü are black-on-white abstract works, their thrusting strokes splaying dark tendrils of an occasional splash out into the infinite white. Others, densely blotted in grays and sepias, seem inspired by the sort of desolate landscapes Anselm Kiefer is drawn to. The selection at the Polish Institute Gallery—the exhibition at both locations is free to view through Saturday—is more varied and colorful, but it also features the haunting XII (2003), a rare venture into figurative painting. A row of bandaged men may be wounded soldiers or simply refugees from the twentieth century with nowhere to go.

The exhibition doesn’t so much show us another side of the artist as it gives us that Skolimowski energy we feel watching his films in another medium. EO, which won a Jury Prize in Cannes and is now nominated for a Best International Feature Oscar, is a daisy-chain narrative, a journey taken by a donkey, EO, across contemporary Europe. “As a character,” writes J. Hoberman in the Nation, “EO is generally placid, patient, and largely reactive; as a movie, EO is loud, jagged, and kinetic. Skolimowski was a semiprofessional boxer in his youth, and he brings a pugilistic mentality to his films. The rhapsodic flurry of quick-cut feints and close-up jabs is followed by a knockout blow, be it a sudden act of violence, a bird plunging to earth, or the unexpected appearance of Isabelle Huppert.”

EO makes its exclusive streaming premiere on the Criterion Channel today, accompanied by a portrait of the six donkeys who play EO, a program on the film’s making, and an anecdote-packed interview with the director. EO joins three earlier Skolimowski features on the Channel, too. “Coming in just at the tail-end of the ‘swinging London’ 60’s, soaked with bright colors and the fruitful fumes of sex, there’s the feeling that anything could happen, not all of it good,” wrote Sara Batkie when she recently revisited Deep End (1970) for Crooked Marquee. The film is “far more complex than its surface pleasures or hairpin turns let on.”

The Shout (1978) stars Alan Bates as a mysterious drifter who claims to have learned a mean trick in the Australian outback and John Hurt and Susannah York as the husband and wife whose lives he upends. When Dave Kehr was writing capsule reviews for the Chicago Reader, he called The Shout “shrewd, imaginative moviemaking, a trance thriller that beats Peter Weir on his own turf.” Moonlighting (1982), starring Jeremy Irons as one of four Polish workers illegally renovating a London flat at a crucial moment in their homeland’s history, is “some kind of masterpiece,” wrote Richard T. Jameson in Seattle’s Weekly in 1983. “Moonlighting is the kind of film that had me marveling throughout how anyone ever came up with such a great idea for a movie and, having come up with it, proceeded to realize that idea so completely, within almost comically modest means.”

EO, in the meantime, will screen in New York on Friday when the biannual festival Kino Polska opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. On Monday, Bilge Ebiri will moderate a Q&A with Skolimowski and his wife, cowriter, and coproducer, Ewa Piaskowska, at Film at Lincoln Center. And from March 27 through April 29, the BFI and the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival will present Outsiders and Exiles: The Films of Jerzy Skolimowski, a season of fourteen features, including, of course, EO, “the most feeling film Skolimowski has ever made,” as senior editor Ania Szremski writes at 4Columns. “It is surely the one burned most indelibly into my memory.”

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