Review: Bird Talk
by Marta Bałaga
- Xavery Żuławski pens a love-hate letter to his late father and manages to exhaust everyone else in the process
One wonders if there is any point in trying to review Xavery Żuławski’s latest, perhaps most ambitious, work to date, Bird Talk [+see also:
interview: Xawery Żuławski
film profile], presented at the Seville Film Festival following a somewhat controversial response in its native Poland. We say “perhaps most ambitious” because it’s not like his previous output was exactly some simple nursery rhyme, spearheaded by a take on Dorota Masłowska’s talky, stream-of-consciousness-like novel Snow White and Russian Red [+see also:
film profile]. How he managed to pull that one off remains a mystery to this day.
But as ambitious as Bird Talk undoubtedly is, with layer upon layer upon layer, born of Andrzej Żuławski’s last script and delivered with the help of his frequent collaborators (including cinematographer Andrzej Jaroszewicz) – yet seemingly driven by the current situation in Poland as much as his late father’s demons – it just turns out to be a thoroughly exhausting experience. One that is bound to be even more tiring or just flat-out confusing for anyone who is, firstly, not Polish and, secondly, not versed in the craziness that was Żuławski Sr’s hellish world. Ironically, perhaps, given that some of that man’s best work, like Possession or even On the Silver Globe, ultimately proved more universal and internationally acclaimed than the polite little stories by Polish cinema’s so-called greats. Just go and ask Sam Neill, traumatised and thrilled to this day when recalling the film where Isabelle Adjani’s self-mutilation with an electric knife wasn’t even the weirdest scene.
This time, you get less of an actual plot and more of something akin to full-on bacchanalia, with monologues delivered with gusto and overacted to within an inch of their life – to the point when it actually starts to be entertaining – and cries about a “bunch of Jews, Jews, Jews” accompanied by the familiar refrain from the early 20th-century poem teaching the brood that “the German won’t spit on our face”, transforming Bird Talk into some kind of delirious satire right from the get-go. In it, two teachers are let go from their respective posts, one (Sebastian Pawlak) having been constantly abused by his nasty, nationalistic pupils, while the other, Marian (Sebastian Fabijański, almost trying to out-Cage Nicolas Cage here at times), is left sharing a flat with a leprous pianist. There is a one-eyed painter, too, and a limping florist, who also sings a little. And nobody, least of all young Żuławski, seems to have any control over what’s flooding the screen.
Truth be told, some problems feel rather familiar: the overly intellectualised dialogue that needs to be recited, not spoken, bringing to mind all those school-approved book lists but also some forgotten local news stories, and the recurring autobiographical themes, some of them more obvious than others. Andrzej Żuławski was able to harness his own detrimental tendencies sometimes, with interesting results, but other times not so much – at one point, it really does feel like this film is never going to end. But while there is no need for in-depth political analysis here, this might be just the kind of nasty, sweaty portrayal that Poland would not want anyone to see, its confusion between its communist past and the right-wing reality alone proving more than enough to make everyone a bit dizzy. Anarchy in the UK? Oh please – just head straight to Poland and prepare for one hell of a headache. “It’s funny and terrible,” says Fabijański’s Marian. “Like fucking a tiger.”
Bird Talk was produced by Poland’s Metro Films.
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