It’s been five years already since the release of Jerzy Skolimowski’s excellent Essential Killing (2010), the director’s controversial take on “rendition” which set Vincent Gallo’s Taliban fighter on the run and struggling for survival in the wintry wastes of rural Poland. If we’re sure of anything by now it’s that the only thing one can expect from a Skolimowski movie is the unexpected: there’s no easy-to-identify through-line that would connect the work of this veteran director (also a boxer, poet and painter) over his 50 year career. What Skolimowski does possess, though, is an uncanny ability to take the pulse and measure of the contemporary world in a way that’s as idiosyncratic as it is insightful.
This is precisely what’s achieved in the director’s latest work, 11 Minutes, which arrives at the Gdynia Film Festival after its premiere at Venice and its screening at Toronto. The movie brilliantly takes up the theme of what the director vaguely calls “the commotion of contemporary life … that leads to accidents”. Like much of Skolimowski’s output 11 Minutes has certainly divided critical opinion. But I, for one, have no hesitation in calling this thrillingly expansive, formally rich and fiercely intelligent work the masterpiece of this year’s Festival, and one of the finest films of 2015. The movie walked away with the “Special Jury Award” at Saturday’s ceremony, and while that felt a little bit like a consolation prize, I was nonetheless happy to see this extraordinary film rewarded in some way at the Festival.
If Essential Killing finally took on the contours and feel of a folk ballad — with an indelible final image straight out of “Bonnie James Campbell” — then 11 Minutes stands as Skolimowski’s symphony. Indeed, the city symphony sub-genre is an obvious reference point here, as the movie sets a diverse group of characters in motion in contemporary Warsaw, intercutting their experiences and encounters over the same eleven minutes of the day.
There’s a sleazy director (Richard Dormer) auditioning an actress (Paulina Chapko) in a hotel room to which another man (Wojciech Mecwaldowski) is struggling to gain admittance. There’s an ambulance team attempting to get access to their patient. There’s an elderly man peacefully sketching a bridge over the Vistula before getting a rather disturbing interruption. There’s a motorcycle courier (Dawid Ogrodnik), some meat-craving nuns, a girl (Ifi Ude) walking her dog, a couple (Agata Bucek and Piotr Głowacki) watching porn, and a mysterious hotdog seller played by Andrzej Chyra. (The latter’s choice of profession here is a cheeky homage to Burt Kwouk’s memorable, ever-bowing vendor in Skolimowski’s London-set 1970 film, Deep End (1970)).
11 Minutes is very much a Warsaw movie, with a focus on particular landmarks – including the controversial “rainbow arch” – that add an extra resonance to the picture for viewers who know that city well. At the same time, the location is effectively presented as an “every-city” and the character types and situations are universal enough. Just as Essential Killing played on, and subverted, the action-thriller man-on-the-run movie, so 11 Minutes tips its hat to the multi-stranded choral film, from Altman to Magnolia (1999) through Crash (2004) and Babel (2006).
Yet, for all the moments of characteristically wry humour that Skoilimowski incorporates (dig those doggy point-of-view shots!), the movie doesn’t play like parody. Rather, from the sometimes routine, sometimes surreal everyday happenings depicted, Skolimowski expertly builds a gradual sense of vertiginous unease and foreboding leading to apocalyptic dread. What’s that sinister something in the sky, observed by characters at various points? Well, its many things: an accidental smudge on an artist’s sketchbook, a rogue pixel on a monitor’s screen.
From the terrifically edgy and disorientating prologue onwards, it won’t go unnoticed that screens fill Skolimowski’s screen: smartphones, laptops and, especially, CCTV are elegantly integrated into the movie’s form and fabric. Technically, the picture is beyond praise, with great cinematography by Mickolaj Lebkowski, dynamic editing by Agnieszka Glińska (a job very different from her work on The Here After but equally committed to serving the story) and Paul Mykietyn’s amazing music all adding up to a stylistic tour-de-force. (Both Glińska and Mykietyn were both honoured at Saturday’s ceremony.)
The movie’s climax is a startling spectacle so outrageously over-the-top in its orchestration that even Brian De Palma might have balked. Skolimowski pulls it off, though, and the movie dispenses a genuine chill as it shows the ease which catastrophe can become absorbed into our experience these days, as just another incident in the city’s daily round. As such, Pauline Kael’s remarks about De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) fit 11 Minutes’s conclusion perfectly: “It’s hallucinatory, and it has a dreamlike clarity and inevitability, but you’ll never make the mistake of thinking that it’s only a dream.”
To complain, as several commentators have done, that some of the film’s narrative strands are insufficiently developed seems wincingly literal-minded. 11 Minutes is pure cinema, and its attention to ambience and rhythm is peerless. For me, the stories and characters were balanced and juxtaposed carefully, and with enough suggestiveness and opacity to make further viewings of the picture an exciting prospect, indeed. At a brisk 80 minutes, the movie is both tight and loose, and as deep or as shallow as you wish.
The story feels like a warning, but the precise nature of that warning can feel tantalisingly ambiguous. To be sure, there’s nothing didactic going on here. I’d suggest, though, that the fact that Skolimowski, at age 77, has produced a movie this rich, this dynamic and this blazingly adventurous constitutes a wake-up call in itself.