Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 01, 2017 5:38 am 
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Admiration for a crazy lady

From a novel, this new movie by Agnieszka Holland and her daughter expresses an intense, boisterous, and rather disturbing admiration for a vigorous nut case of a lady in late middle age, Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat) - she has to tell people not to put an "n" in the name and insists they just call her "Duszejko," never "Janina" or "Ms." A great admirer of the doctrines of William Blake, she lives in Kotlina Kłodzka, a virtual nature preserve on the Polish-Czech border that's not a preserve at all: its bristling with birds, wild boar, deer and other wildlife, but the macho local culture involves constant hunting and poaching - killing out of season that "Duszejko" abhors. Correspondingly, the story is punctuated by hunting rules, with title cards showing what animals are in season month by month and what ones aren't, through winter to summer and back to winter again.

This looks like the chronicle of an eccentric woman in her sixties who becomes the suspect/ad hoc investigator of a crime story as a series of murders occur, but it turns into an animal activist drama whose hero gets away with murder. It's suggested, in passing, that astrology, a big hobby of Duszejko's, is a good thing too. This is impressive, boisterous filmmaking, full of noise, action, and life. It's also sprawling and troubling in its apparent advocacy of questionable strategies. Spoor is an oddball work by a famous director, a curiosity, a genre-bender, that may find and hold its own niche.

The key apparently lies in the source novel by Olga Tokarczuk, her 2009 Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead. Tokarczuk is a both critically acclaimed and commercially successful writer who seems to have a strong bent for provocation. Speaking of her more recent 2014 The Books of Jacob, bluntly depicting Polish treatment of the Jews, the Economist reports how she has had abuse heaped upon her by the country's new conservative patriots. Drvive Your Plough is likewise described in a Polish lit website in English as having caused a good deal of "consternation among Polish readers" for "turning to popular literature" with a novel in the "crime genre," focusing on a "central character" who's hard to take, and by the additional claim that the book is a "metaphysical thriller" and therefore somehow resonant with prfound meaning. Judging by this film, there's kookiness where that profundity should be.

One reviewer of the film pointedly claims that the lead actress, Agnieszka Mandat, looks like Aileen Wuornos. But she may as much resemble the director herself, as her daughter rather resembles her. Duszejko admits she's unqualified to teach but is a part-time instructor to school kids in English to keep busy. She lives off by herself in a rough but rangey cottage with two big female dogs. She starts breaking the rules when the dogs disappear by bringing out her class in the middle of the night to hunt for the dogs. She is bereaved, and doesn't get over it, and rails against all the men in authority and power around town - the richest man, the mayor, the chief of police, the local priest. We get the message pretty bluntly when the priest condemns Duszejko's pet cemetery, firmly declaring that animals have no souls.

Killings are dotted through the year. When the hot weather comes, Duszejko meets up with an entomologist doing research in the woods (Miroslav Krobot) and they have a lively and vigorously physical late-blooming affair that's also a union of activists against the world. The entomologist rails against the loggers who are killing off the larvae of insects that are essential to the ecology of the region - of the planet.

Mandat is impressive, alternately scary and beautiful, and carries the action well. Spoor's energy and flow are fun and impressive. At its best moments, the film effortlessly conveys a sense of burgeoning nature and human events out of control. But it feels out of control too, its police procedural element never providing the pace and backbone it might. Filmmaking skills come to feel wasted in the repetitiousness and excessive length. Spoor frequently harangues the viewer with its - or Tokarczuk's - feminism and ecological activism. The score by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz, typically, is hard-driving and energetic but a bit monotonous too. Peter Bradshaw is on target when he calls Spoor "watchable in its quirky and wayward way, with some funny moments – [but] shallower than it thinks." Its provocations only weaken its arguments and one wonders if in their enthusiasm Holland and her daughter-collaborator have lost whatever subtlety the novel source may have had.(Metacritic rating: 61%/)

Spoor/Pokot, 128 mins, debuted at the Berlinale; a dozen-plus other festivals. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival, 30 Sept. 2017 with a Q&A by the filmmakers afterwards.

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