With the voyeuristic Four Nights with Anna and the visceral, brutal, beautiful and nearly wordless Essential Killing, Jerzy Skolimowski can be said to have made a comeback, but since when has he been away? Philip French in The Observer seemed confident of his authority when he suggested that Skolimowski had done "little of interest since the excellent Moonlighting in 1982." David Thomson in The Guardian called Torrents of Spring (1989), the director's last-but-one film before his seventeen years away from film directing, "a dull version of Turgenev."
Well, I liked it. It gives me no pride to break with critical tradition and admit I haven't read the book, but allowing for some unconvincing accents and dubbing (hardly anybody in this French-British-Italian co-production plays their own nationality), and a spot of rubbery old age make-up, I found it dazzling to the eye and rather enchantingly mysterious, perhaps due to elisions in the adaptation, and the fact that we are mainly denied access to the protagonist's thoughts, and are thus forced to guess at his motivation from his contradictory actions.
Timothy Hutton plays a wealthy-ish Russian traveling in Italy, who falls first for a beautiful young shopkeeper (Valeria Golino) and then, when attempting to settle his affairs so he can marry her, for a flighty Russian noblewoman (Nastassja Kinski). He's apparently no more able to read his emotions than we are, and so vacillates fatally between the two: and the film slips into a strange Venetian carnival fantasy.
Skolimowski has never enjoyed the commercial success of his former collaborator Polanski, and it's easy enough to see why. Polanski's cinematic worlds lie on the fringes of disintegration, with forces of violence ready to overtake at any moment; but Skolimowski refuses even to draw clear battle lines between reason and madness, order and chaos, and his narratives often lack resolution (even Polanski's desperate conclusion to Chinatown, in which the film itself seems to go into shock, might seem too neat for Skolimowski).
So there's an unsettling surprise at the end of this movie, which meanders pleasantly for most of its length without seeming to declare an interest in what its story might prove to be. Hutton is astonishingly gorgeous to look upon, and when he meets Golino the film almost risks becoming too beautiful. (Apparently she has to have a special man follow her around with a brush and shovel, collecting the jawbones that clunk to the ground in her wake. It's in her contract.) The arrival of Kinski doesn't exactly uglify things, but fortunately William Forsythe is on hand to temper the photogenics, playing another Russian with a strange voice which seems to be shouting from behind the curtains.
Lest the flirtations of these nicely-dressed nineteenth-century youngsters get a little twee, Skolimowski also infuses the romance with realism: the backgrounds and soundtrack are cluttered with clucking, barking and snorting animals, and a minor character splits his britches at a game of bowls, something that never seems to happen to anybody in Merchant-Ivory films.
All of which is fun and strangely hypnotic to watch, but no preparation for the climax which seems to anticipate both the masked orgy of Eyes Wide Shut and the other-dimensional Red Room of Twin Peaks, a sequence which might easily be a simple representation of some events that took place in Venice, but which refuses to be pigeonholed as reality, dream, or hallucination. It's like some kind of super-compressed diamond of memory, existing on its own, haunting the protagonist, and hopefully the audience.