It’s easy to believe there are no great movies left to find, but you’ve missed at least one if you haven’t seen Deep End (1970), playing alongside 10 other Jerzy Skolimowski films at the Museum of the Moving Image.
The film is set in suburban London; Jane Asher and John Moulder-Brown co-star as Susan and Mike, two kids working together at a public pool/bathhouse, eye candy for the groping clientele. Virgin Mike pines for elder Susan, even as he’s disturbed by each new revelation of her sexual experience, and his naïve nervousness gradually starts to look like hysteria. The centerpiece of the movie is a long scene set around a SoHo street corner where snooping Mike follows Susan and her fop-sleaze boyfriend, who disappear into a private club. While pacing in wait, Mike filches a pinup cutout from the front of a dirty bookstore, hides with a hooker who’s laid up with her leg in a cast, and wolfs down hot dogs bought from a street vendor, hounded all the time by Can’s wailing “Mother Sky.” The interplay between music and image, between the layers of foreground and background detail, the exploratory camera, the roomy takes and nutsoid humorous details—this is, in essence, the art of Jerzy Skolimowski.
From an original story by Skolimowski, Deep End, with its detailed working-class London, seems the sort of thing only an Englishman would attempt—yet many of the interiors were shot in Munich, and he was a product of postwar Poland. His father was Polish Resistance, executed by the Nazis; the son was a published poet by 20, attended the Lódz Film School, boxed, then played a boxer for Andrzej Wajda, wrote the dialogues for Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), and in due course became a filmmaker.
His first feature was 1964’s Rysopis; watching its sequel, Walkover (1965), the second of three films in which Skolimowski directed himself as rootless youth Andrzej Leszczyc, you’ll witness a prodigious talent going full-bore. The film is a chain of dynamic long takes that have you holding your breath, as if watching a balancing act. He gives an energetic, environmentally hyperaware performance on both sides of the camera, viewed sprinting, bounding off a moving train, and slugging through three very convincing rounds in the ring. It’s all-the-world’s-a-set, parkour filmmaking—as if Jean-Luc Godard’s nimble brains and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s durable physique had combined in one man.
First venturing abroad to make Le Depart with Jean-Pierre Léaud in 1967, Skolimowski was offered a passport and an invitation to expatriate by Polish authorities after his Hands Up! was banned that same year for its refraining image, an ominous four-eyed Stalin. His talent proved as adaptable to circumstance as his improvisations on-set, and as an émigré he married his technique to more intent character observation, producing great works like Deep End and The Shout (1978)—in which Susannah York cohabits with electronic composer John Hurt on an isolated Devon seashore, their lives invaded by Alan Bates’s mysterious mystic. (Shout’s innovative early Dolby soundtrack shows Skolimowski as an extraordinary aural filmmaker, as well.)
Skolimowski’s career was derailed by the poorly received 1991 Ferdydurke, adapted from the most famous novel by fellow Polish exile Witold Gombrowicz. He spent the years afterward in Malibu, painting and acting in other people’s films—most notably as the threadbare uncle of Naomi Watts’s character in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007).
And then, in 2008, there was a new Skolimowski film. Produced during a return to Poland, full of false bottoms, funny, and unaccountably moving, Four Nights With Anna returns to the territory of Deep End with another ambiguously mad protagonist—a village idiot spying on a zaftig neighbor, who takes to sneaking into her house to watch her sleep. Skolimowski keeps the viewer’s ideas of what’s going on ever unsteady, while his equilibrium has never been better.
Skolimowski’s return continues with survivalist fable Essential Killing, in which the director’s wit is mostly absent save in the casting of performance-art shock jock Vincent Gallo as an escaped Taliban prisoner wandering purgatorial, wintery Poland. It’s a minor film, but, as with all of Skolimowksi’s output, it leaves you with a few ringing passages. And as the obvious excellence of 73-year-old Skolimowski’s body of work becomes increasingly visible, one fears for his peaceful retirement.