DVD Review Of Maids Of Wilko

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/31/07


  Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda’s 1979 film Maids Of Wilko (Panny Z Wilka- also translated as Young Girls Of Wilko) shows that, like such filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, and Yasujiro Ozu, he is an artist more interested in endurances than mere ‘scenes.’ His characters speak as if philosophers, but in a naturalistic style. They are not the hyper-educated bourgeoisie of Bergman, the spiritual elitists of Bresson, nor the everyday philosophes of Ozu. Yet, there’s something more to them, and Wajda, than what is on the screen, even if the film, as a whole, fails to reach great heights.

  His two most famous Polish descendents in cinema, Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski, are filmmakers who believe in indulgence. This is not a comment on the success of their indulgences, merely a recognition of them. Polanski, for example, has a predilection for the Grand Guignol, and would have been perfectly at home in the 1920s, making silent films alongside the great German Expressionists. Kieslowski, on the other hand, grew into a filmmaker who heaped visual razzle-dazzle with spiritual symbolism, almost to the point of surfeit.

  By contrast, Wajda’s film is a Chekhovian chamber play, although most of it is set outdoors. It is one of those works of art in which, in answer to a query such as, ‘What is it about?’, the only answer is nothing and everything. It is, in a sense, akin to Betty Smith’s fantastic novel of female maturation in early Twentieth Century America, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, save that much of the basics are inverted. The lead in Maids Of Wilko- despite its title, is a thirtysomething veteran of war. Instead of his eventual departure from his youthful stomping grounds, he is returning to them after fifteen years away, in the late 1920s (since 1922 and ’23 are mentioned as being some time ago), in which time he was in World War One, and ended up a farm manager outside of a big city. The interwar years make this film a historical period piece, unlike most of the films of Polanski and Kieslowski, which are set in contemporary times, and it’s interesting to note how similar the characters are to their counterparts in films set in other countries at the same period of time, rather than their differences.

  However, like Smith’s novel, the film focuses on dozens of small moments, such as its lead character, Wiktor Ruben (Daniel Olbrychski), slowly walking through fields, and letting the natural world engulf him. In A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the setting is New York City, but as Smith’s words almost evoke the scent of freshly baked bread, so too does the cinematography of Edward Klosinski evoke the scents of the pastoral. There is a soft natural glow to many of the film’s scenes- indoors and out, reminiscent of similar scenes in dark films like Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, Phantom Of The Night, or Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. However, on more than one occasion, the refraction of light in the camera leaves distortions and sundogs which distract- something Herzog and Kubrick meticulously avoided. That said, many of the scenes could have easily descended into cheesy Thomas Kinkade like moments, were it not for the depth of the characters in the film, and a good screenplay by Zbigniew Kaminski. Wiktor, as example, never gets too swept away in the natural beauty about him. He is an enigma- not that we cannot sense where his dourness and pervasive sense of loss stems from, but as to why it has not overwhelmed him.

  After the death of a close friend opens the film, Wiktor goes for a checkup at the local doctor’s. The old man advises him to take three weeks off, for his own good, but Wiktor is reluctant. Right away, the film sets the tone of death hovering about this handsome and somehow charming man. In many lesser films, a film would tank, and drive viewers away with such an opening. Yet, this film subtly draws a viewer in because the feeling Wiktor shares with the doctor, and audience, is not mere sorrow, but a desire to understand death, life, and more importantly, the ineffable. It is the one thing that Wajda’s character cannot name. Without this commonality, mankind would still be swinging from African trees.

  Thus advised, Wiktor takes leave from his job, as the head of a church-run farm- not a factory, as some critics claim, and returns to his hometown, where he stays with his elderly aunt (Zofia Jaroszewska) and uncle (Tadeusz Bialoszczynski). We never really learn why he is visiting them, but it’s not difficult to conclude that they raised him, likely after some accident killed his parents. We also see that he is troubled by learning of the death by suicide of a former lover- Fela, from the town. It was their breakup, fifteen years earlier, which propelled him to leave town in the first place, and caused her to kill herself. This act also sent him to war, whose horrors he sums up in one word: ‘ghastly.’ There are no overacted scenes of Wiktor dealing with shellshock, although he clearly suffers from it. Just the one word, and Wiktor’s mien at its utterance, serves the purpose many a lesser film would have made central to the film’s raison. Yet, the death of his unseen friend at the start of the film obviously triggers some desire for completion or confrontation with his past, as it concerns the loss of Fela, even if Victor cannot utter why.

  He also returns to visit some wealthy women who live nearby, at a large manor home. Their relationship to each other is never clear in the film- possibly just friends who suffer through traumas and divorces after the war, although critics claim they are sisters, as in the novel by poet Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz that the film is based upon. The four older sisters all had crushes, of a sort, on Wiktor, at one time or another, but none of them meshed enough with him for love to last. The youngest sister, however, is now smitten with him, even though it’s manifest that Wiktor is even less suited for a relationship now than before he went off to war. Whether or not Fela was related to any or all of the women is also left unclear. Why the film is alternately called Maids Of Wilko or Young Girls Of Wilko is odd, since none of the five women are young, and perhaps only one or two are still virgins- the youngest, Tunia (Christine Pascal- the lone French actress in the French-Polish co-production) and the frumpiest, Kazia (Krystyna Zachwatowicz), and none are yet ‘old maids.’ Wiktor, however, is indecisive. Whereas, in his earlier incarnation, he was a flirt, now he is a man with what seems to be a fear of loss, which is inevitable in love, or something even deeper. At all turns in this film, the viewer has to surmise the indefinable. Wiktor and the other characters only have so much insight into themselves and each other, and it is that amorphous unspoken which lingers over all their existences.

  Some critics have claimed that Wiktor is, as he himself claims, a coward, but each time he has a ‘moment’ with one of the sisters, which in a Hollywood romance would have crescendoed into a kiss, he backs off, and not out of fear nor game playing. Olbrychski deftly conveys the sense that his character is not in conscious control of his reactions, with seemingly involuntary twitches and facial expressions that, if a viewer is not paying attention, are easy to miss. In fact, it is the women who are the calculating game players, in varying degrees, and when Wiktor seems to be spending too much time with one of them, it is the others who draw within themselves, and prey upon their souls with hatred, masochism, or self-pity.

  Whereas many critics have misread Wiktor’s motivations, all have misread the fact that it is the manipulative women who are the prima mobile of the film. Wiktor may be the lead character, but he is bounced between the women and their mood swings like a pinball inside a pinball machine. Never is this more clear than when the youngest woman, Tunia, who seems to be the most like Fela (Wiktor even calls her by Fela’s name), rebuffs him merely because he dances with another of the women. Much like Isak Borg, in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (a film invoked several times in the screenplay by visuals and a scene where Wiktor rhapsodizes on them), who is accused of being ‘cold’ by others, we see no evidence of what the other characters in this film are saying about Wiktor. Like Borg’s relations, Wiktor’s female companions seem intent on blaming him for their failures, and his only flaw is that he slowly buys into it.

  This film has been horribly misinterpreted, and not in merely the minor ways I have pointed out, but in its entire conception. As example, noted New York Times film critic, Vincent Canby, upon the film’s release, called it a ‘dark comedy,’ and without an instance of elaboration nor corroboration for the claim. Believe me, there is no comedy in this film. Not that it’s dour, but Canby was way off the mark, not only in reiterating many of the misassessments I’ve pointed out, but even in his take on Wiktor:


  Though in his late 30’s, Wiktor (Daniel Olbrychski) is still a handsome man. He’s trim, fair-haired and has the heavily lidded eyes that often suggest he has mysterious longings when he’s really nothing more than bored, detached from the immediate scene….which even he is beginning to suspect is a certain emptiness….


  One need only watch the first five minutes of the film to see that, of all the possible ills Wiktor suffers from, emptiness and boredom are not among them. And while Maids Of Wilko is not a dark comedy, Wiktor Ruben is a character who would have been right at home in the dark comedies from woody Allen’s Golden Age, like Stardust Memories, Hannah And Her Sisters, or Crimes And Misdemeanors.

  The DVD is put put by Vanguard Cinema, part of a sextet of DVDs under the title, Andrzej Wajda Retrospective 6-Pack. It is very skimpy with extras- there is no audio commentary, as example. There is no English language dubbing, which always eases the enjoyment of the visual medium. However, the English subtitles are in crisp, clear, gold, and there are ten brief interviews included, with Wajda, some actors, and other members of the film’s crew. There is a link on stamps printed in Wajda’s honor. There are also trailers, and a letter from American filmic schlockmeister Steven Spielberg in support of Wajda’s honorary Lifetime Academy Award. The film makes very little use of the soundtrack by Karol Szymanowski, which lends a natural feel to the film, and stresses the literary aspect of the film. Until one is presented with a film like this, one rarely realizes how utterly inappropriate and superfluous most film scores are. And, as mentioned, the cinematography is beautiful, even if it suffers from a few technical glitches in lighting. However, the print of the film, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, that Vanguard used for the DVD is not good. It is at about the quality of a mediocre VHS release from twenty years ago, filled with splotches and scratches. This is a shame for the work itself deserved much better than the quicky treatment its distributor gave it. The DVD cover also misstates the film’s running time at 87 minutes, when it’s really 110 minutes long.

  Maids Of Wilko was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 1980, but while it’s a very good film, it’s not a great one, and never really soars into the stratosphere. The three other sisters in the film, Julia (Anna Seniuk), Jola (Maja Komorowska), and Zosia (Stanislawa Celinska) are not as well defined as Tunia nor Kazia, to the point of their being almost interchangeable, yet the situations sketched, and the actors who play the three other main characters are wonderful. The only semi-memorable moment for Jola- a blond with a facial mole, is when she lectures Wiktor that, ‘Moral authority is invoked by those who live immoral lives.’ By contrast, there is one standout scene, when Kazia comes to a party in a dress she borrows, dances with Wiktor, and takes off her eyeglasses, that defines her character and the futility of mere words in capturing emotion. It is almost ‘pure cinema.’ She tips her head backward so he can kiss her, but when he does not, the look of disappointment on her face is palpable enough to be felt by every viewer. It is a moment no novel nor poem could capture, for it forces all the viewers into the same position, as they reflect on their own disappointments.

  It is in moments like this, that do not go wasted, that Wajda proves he is a great film director, even if his overall film falls shy of that claim. Everything in Maids Of Wilko has import, if not to a character than to the viewer, and that is a rarity. The film is complex without being overly complicated. It plays out like a Brontë or Dickens novel with more depth. The same is true for the handsome yet deep Wiktor, who never quite learns the power of the word, even if I do. It is: ….

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]

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