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Friday, Oct. 23, 2009
'Four Nights with Anna'
Pole returns with a dose of sexual deviance
By KAORI SHOJI
Bleak doesn't begin to describe "Four Nights with Anna." Or more to the point — sheer, undiluted creepiness. The work marks the re-emergence of Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski to filmmaking after a 15-year absence and, debates of whether it was worth the wait aside, the film is a return to form.
Skolimowski has a thing about freakish obsession, as demonstrated in works like "Mesmerized" (1989) that starred Jodie Foster as a young wife troubled by the obsessive sexual fantasies of a much older husband. He was a master in walking the fine line between outright kinkiness and accessible art house — and had worked with big budgets and stellar names in both the U.S. and Europe.
For "Four Nights" Skolimowski went back to his roots, downsized his project and assembled a virtually unknown cast. His meticulous eye for detail and the way he charts the emotions of his characters with distanced and brilliant precision remains unchanged. What's new is a queasy aftertaste, a blend of clammy fear and nausea that's difficult to shake off long after the lights come on.
Meet Leon (Artur Steranko), a sweating, sad-faced 40-something who works as a stoker in a hospital crematorium. He has no friends and no relations with the exception of a recently-dead grandmother whose grave he visits to tell her in his terrible stutter: "I'm doing what you wanted, I'm seeing a woman." Though not as she would have wished; Leon watches Anna (Kinga Preis), a hospital nurse 10 years his junior, living in an apartment complex across the courtyard from his own quarters. The habit quickly escalates into a full-scale obsession as Leon sneaks into her place and mixes ground-up sleeping pills into her sugar pot, which she always dips into at night for her bedtime tea. Thus drugged, Anna sleeps soundly as Leon watches over her longingly, cleans up her kitchen after a birthday party, paints her toenails. At one point he reaches a trembling hand out to her exposed breast, then quickly withdraws it.
Skolimowski who cowrote the screenplay gives Leon absolutely no breaks — start to finish the man is strange and repulsive, encased in a Teflon armor of noncommunication. He's so remote from the modern, digital existence where a single Facebook entry would save him from anonymity — it's easier to believe he had somehow been lifted out of a medieval dungeon (his sin being the village idiot) and deposited with a plop into the 21st century. On the other hand, there's very little about "Four Nights" that's 21st century at all. It seems as though Skolimowski looked for the grimiest, most backward burg his country had on offer; the muddy, rain-drenched pathways that crisscross the hospital grounds seem to ooze an odor of toxins and rotting excreta while the sky seems saturated with lead-infested water from an ancient drainpipe.
Leon shuffles through the landscape with his head bowed, hands thrust in his pockets in a permanent posture of dejection. Anna is the sole beacon of light, but one that's under threat of being extinguished with a single gust of wind. Skolimowski isn't interested in drawing her personality and she seems less like a real woman than a figment of Leon's dream, an amalgam figure patched together in the confines of his unresourceful imagination.
Leon by the way, doesn't watch TV or surf the Net — besides his job the man is completely devoid of task or information unless he's puttering around in Anna's apartment, dusting her shelves and inspecting her refrigerator. Leon never attempts to be anything other than what he is and this is what makes him so repellent — even more than the stalker antics — and consequently it's the film's biggest crime.