To describe Provincial Actors (1979), Agnieska Holland’s first film, as psychological is an understatement. The film is a rare thing, managing to balance characterization with a polemical heart, without ever resorting to cliché. The plot – self-reflective yet never over-burdened – revolves around a group of actors exploring themes in a forthcoming theatre production of Stanislaw’s Wyspianski’s Liberation – a play itself about hierarchies within a Krakow theatre production. Working on this play-within-a-play-within-a-film, the characters find the themes they’re exploring beginning to penetrate their own lives. All this takes place against the backdrop of communist censorship, a situation the persecuted Holland knew all too well, Provincial Actors being made two years before the imposition of Martial Law in Poland, when the director emigrated to France.
Centre-stage in this film is actor Krysztof (Tadeusz Huk), a man going through an emotional and psychological descent, at sea in a world of lost narratives. Krysztof tries hard to penetrate the truths of the theatre script, one apparently updated by the communist authorities with ideologically-laden references to ‘proletarian’ theatre technicians. At the beginning of the actors’ read-through, irritated by the superficial treatment of this classic, even sacred work, Krysztof angrily demands: ‘Is this film about the working class or about stagehands?!’ Throughout he’s the only person to see the gap between ideology and practice, as the production team pore over the script’s pieties but are blind to their own ill treatment of the stage-hands on their crew. Yet Krysztof himself isn’t immune from this double-thinking, crusading for consistency yet simultaneously living in denial of the breakdown of his marriage to fellow-actor Anka (Halina Łabonarska). As the film progresses, we see his moral earnestness contrasted with his private self-absorption – at home he’s at best indifferent to his wife, at worst sadistic to her. Krysztof is full of repressed rage and contempt at a life which falls below his standards, and Huk, playing this duality by turns arrogant and sympathetic, captures the complexity with ease.
Holland’s grasp of ensemble acting means any ponderous moments in this film reverberate in subtle ways; the more gregarious scenes (as the actors get drunk) are unobtrusively filmed and the more intense ones are, with a kind of visual musing, sensitively shot. The film noticeably avoids the over-defined and sometimes pretentious styles of certain other prominent Polish directors who’ve prioritized the conceptual in their work – instead the psychological undercurrents are evoked primarily through the acting: characters are fleshed out through their engagement with each other, and are never reduced to appendages of the film’s themes – even though Holland’s poetic eye for composition and juxtaposed images adds more layers to the piece.
One example is the visual play on a dead domestic cat and the relationship between the central couple. Without ever specifying the exact sources of Kryzysztof and Anka’s conflict, the sparse dialogue, the dead cat and the claustrophobic bedroom all combine to paint their marital torment in one shot. In a later scene where we see Anka at work as a puppeteer, the camera is fixed entirely on her – and not the puppet show – as she’s filmed furiously manipulating the poles of her doll, face sweating and shoulders hunched. We get the picture immediately: having once been a highly ambitious actress, Anka has had to make sacrifices in life.
There are a few distractions on show here, like the suspenseful Columbo-style music which works against the film’s quiet and thoughtful style – but this doesn’t detract from the tightly-narrated story of a couple’s breakdown, set against a literary landscape. Idealism is under investigation in Provincial Actors – not only in political ideology, but in private relationships too, the irony being that the most idealistic people in this particular film have the least ideal relationship. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially for Krysztof, who ends up in despair, unable to order himself emotionally or to balance his responsibilities as actor and husband. Holland avoids a neat ending but gives us open-ended, philosophical soliloquy – one carefully prefixed by Anka’s sadness upon leaving her husband: “It seems like [in life], we just can’t avoid clichés”.
Agnieszka Holland’s Provincial Actors shows at the BFI Southbank on 15th and 16th May, as part of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2015, supported by the Polish Cultural Institute, London.