Reviews

The Big Animal (2006)

Andrew Horbal

Equal parts bitter and sweet, The Big Animal is one of the great unsung, understated masterpieces of this young millennium.


The Big Animal

Director: Jerzy Stuhr
Cast: Jerzy Stuhr, Anna Dymna, Dominika Bednarczyk, Blazej Wójcik, Andrzej Franczyk
Distributor: Milestone Film & Video
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: New Yorker Video
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2006-09-26

More than just a great filmmaker, the legendary Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski was a master storyteller. He delighted in placing ordinary characters in extraordinary situations and then stepping back to simply watch how they responded, telling their tales as straightforwardly as possible without embellishment, without unnecessary artistic flourishes. He united his films by loosely connecting them to much broader frameworks like the Ten Commandments or the French Tricolore. By never overstating this larger symbolism he crafted an amazingly flexible and integrated oeuvre, a body of films that made sense of life on the levels of both the individual and the society; he made films that interacted with each other to examine the ways in which human beings interact with other people, with the State, with different legal and moral codes.

Four years after Kieslowski’s untimely death in 1996 longtime collaborator Jerzy Stuhr (he acted in six Kieslowski films including Three Colors: White and Camera Buff) took a script that the Master started in 1973 but never finished and used it to compose a tribute, called The Big Animal, to his best friend. I had the pleasure of seeing Stuhr himself introduce this film at a Polish film festival five years ago when it was new, and watching it now on DVD I happily find my initial impression confirmed: equal parts bitter and sweet, The Big Animal is one of the great unsung, understated masterpieces of this young millennium.

It’s the story of a Polish couple living in small town that find a camel and decide to keep it, and what happens to them as a result. This delightfully simple premise makes for a refreshingly brief film, clocking in at a brisk 73 minutes. But it’s a deceptive simplicity. Like the episodes in Kieslowski’s Dekalog, The Big Animal holds you in your seat for little more than an hour but sits in your mind for much, much longer.

The film begins outdoors, shrouded in mist. A circus caravan pulls away leaving behind a large, majestic camel. There is no explanation. Stuhr then cuts to a perfectly balanced tableau that will recur throughout the film: a middle-aged couple eats dinner in silence in front of an open window. Marysia Sawicka (Anna Dymna) occupies the left third of the frame, Zygmunt Sawicki (Jerzy Stuhr) occupies the right third of the frame, and they are separated in the middle by a lamp hanging overhead. This composition screams "normal!" "respectable!" "boring!"

The next two shots, which are unique in the film, carry an interesting set of meanings for an American audience: the first is a POV shot of the Sawicki’s house seen through the approaching camel’s eyes. This shot, with its handheld camera and its substitution of the sound of the camel breathing for music, invokes Halloween. The next shot follows through on this set-up: it’s a reverse angle shot of the Sawicki tableau. Marysia stares out the window, which of course means she’s staring directly at us in the audience, and asks, "What’s that by the gate?" Zygmunt turns towards the camera, and for a few moments we squirm before their gaze.

This sequence is wonderfully reminiscent of Kieslowski in the way that it exploits the obvious symbolism of the camel and in the way that it implicates the audience. Stuhr understands that when handled the right way transparent, unsubtle symbols (the camel stands anything new, anything different) can complicate, rather than simplify, a film. These first four shots introduce a variety of equally plausible specific "meanings" for the camel: the camel is American, Hollywood-style entertainment and films; the camel is capitalism and Western-style democracy; the camel is us, the voyeuristic audience; the camel is us, the outsider (standing in for Poland’s increasingly large immigrant population, perhaps?).

Some combination of these interpretations will immediately occur to anyone watching this film; many directors prefer to let symbolism gradually emerge, but Stuhr (like Kieslowski) lays his cards on the table right at the start. Robbed of its mystery the symbol moves to the back of the mind and focus is shifted to the story, the characters. Provided this story and these characters are sufficiently engaging (I submit that in The Big Animal they are) we emerge from the film with a clear understanding of both What happened and What it all means.

And as a result, the film lives a long, vivid life in our memories. The story could not be more straightforward: Zygmunt and Marysia Sawicki find a camel and let it into their lives, where it brings them happiness (the camel joins them at the dinner table through the window, literally bridging the space between them) and changes them (in a dinner tableau after the camel has disappeared they start out eating in silence, but the silence cannot hold because they are no longer normal, respectable, boring). This directness, combined with the clarity of the film’s subtext, lends itself to re-examination, to exploration. As we turn it over in our minds, new meanings emerge, not only for the symbols in the film but also for symbols in general.

What Stuhr has learned from Kieslowski is how to construct a film that teaches us how to watch films, a story that teaches us the secrets of storytelling. Like the Three Colors trilogy or the Dekalog, Big Animal challenges us to examine the devices that we use to tell the stories of our lives. On one level Big Animal is a study of one couple and one town reacting to change, a study of non-conformity and intolerance. But on another level it’s a study of the symbols we use to represent non-conformity and intolerance, just as the Three Colors trilogy is a study of the meanings we ascribe to color and the Dekalog is a study of the ways we interpret the legal and moral codes that nominally govern our lives.

This Milestone Films DVD release features a very nice full screen transfer that showcases Oscar-nominee Pawel Edelman’s (The Pianist, Ray) gorgeous black and white photography and easy-to-read subtitles. Highlighting the somewhat lackluster extras is a 30-minute interview with Jerzy Stuhr (in Polish, subtitled in English). The disc also includes a brief "on-the-set" promo and a cloying English-language trailer.

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