No film exists of Vaslav Nijinsky dancing. The only records of his brief but astonishing career are a few photographs, eyewitness accounts, and reviews, plus the diary he kept as he went mad in 1918-19; he spent years in an asylum and died in 1950 at 61. Nevertheless the Kiev-born artist transfixed several generations, and his diary, re-released in an unexpurgated version translated by Joan Acocella, continues to compel analysis and transformation. Herbert Ross’s 1980 biopic Nijinsky was at least faithful to the available information. Intensely watchable, it’s really an arts management movie, focusing on the economics of keeping a dance troupe alive.
Paul Cox’s Nijinsky (Wellspring, at Film Forum through June 11), a “visualization” of the diary, is, by contrast, a real snooze. At a recent midtown screening, viewers who stayed longer than half an hour were observed snoring loudly or sucking face. By turns maudlin and feminine-products-ad pretty, this Australian film seems wrongheaded, betraying the style of Nijinsky’s movement (Alida Chase choreographed the dancers, often drifting nude in bucolic landscapes) and the emotional atmosphere in which he spent the transitional years after his lover Diaghilev fired him and before he was incarcerated. Shot as though from inside the dancer’s head, the film is missing its center; except for sidelong shots of photographs, the leading character never appears. Derek Jacobi narrates, reading from the diary. We see a funeral procession with dancers dressed, apparently, as characters from Nijinsky’s seminal ballets, but the truly revolutionary choreography is absent. What we hear of the diary, which becomes the film’s script, is the content of the artist’s madness. Onscreen, we see cheesy images: the slaughter of a lamb, a field of black-eyed Susans, the ubiquitous nudes, a crucified Christ, fire, puppies in a field. Everything except the magnificent technique, the tortured choreography, the reasons we remember him.