Provincial Actors (1979) was Agnieszka Holland‘s first internationally distribued feature film (she had previously made a number of feature-length movies for Polish television, some of which sound very interesting, but none of which seem to be currently available in the US). Provincial Actors is a powerful, claustrophobic film; more interesting, I think, than the later features, made in the West and dealing with World War II and the Holocaust (e.g. Angry Harvest and Europa Europa) for which Holland is best known.
Provincial Actors takes on a less overwhelming subject: it’s about the tensions and conflicts among the members of a theater troupe, putting on a production of Stanislaw Wyspianski‘s Liberation (unfortunately I know nothing about this play; lines from it are quoted many times in the course of the film). Provincial Actors alludes to, but entirely subverts, the genre of the “backstage genre” (people struggling to put on a show, a play or a movie). Though the production is continually being talked about (or, more accurately, argued about), we never get to see it. And though the film ends on opening night, with the production apparently being at least something of a success, there is no celebration, and the success doesn’t resolve anything in the lives of the performers. The actors are not caught up in their roles, but alienated from them — even as they are from one another.
All we get in Provincial Actors, then, is tension without release, without catharsis. The main characters (to the extent that there are any; this is, in many respects, an ensemble film) are the lead actor in the troupe, Chris/Krzysztof (Tadeusz Huk), and his wife Anka (Halina Labonarska), who is not a member of the troupe, but a puppeteer. They argue, continually and bitterly, throughout the film — though their strife never reaches a flash point of direct confrontation — until finally she decides to leave him. They both feel trapped by what seem to be dead-end lives; he can only confront his troubles — as she bitterly points out to him — by retreating into his acting, and quoting poetic lines from his favorite plays.
Other members of the cast and crew share a similar sense of atrophy and unresolved strife. Everything stagnates; there isn’t even the measure of relief that might come from bringing any of the conflicts out into the open. The stifling, poisoned atmosphere is evidently as much political as it is personal. Or rather, what’s political about it is precisely the absence of any possibility for the characters of addressing the implosive closure of their lives in something like a political way. The director, who seems to have connections back in Warsaw, deletes any sort of political content from the play, excising all the lines that refer to the “liberation” of the play’s title. He tells the actors that, in his staging, this is not a play about politics, but rather a play about actors putting on a play.
There are multiple ironies here that need unpacking; though I lack the knowledge thoroughly to do so. Wyspianski was a turn-of-the-century (19th into 20th) early modernist; from what I can gather from the film, Liberation has at least something to do with the cause of Polish national liberation. This makes the director’s excising of political content all the more significant: calls for national liberation — from the time when Poland did not exist as a nation-state — would seem to resonate with calls for liberation from Communist Party rule and the Gierek regime, which is why they have to be cut. The director thus retreats from a more open sort of modernism to a very constricted, narrowly self-referential modernism, almost a cariacture of modernism’s initial project. (The film dates from shortly before the rise of the Solidarnosc movement. Holland subsequently left Poland after the imposition of martial law in 1981, and worked thereafter in the West).
It is often said that the turn from the political to the personal and existential, evident in many Polish, and other Eastern European, films, is an act of dissent and resistance, in response to the relentless politicization of everything under Communist rule. But here things seem a bit more complicated. Provincial Actors presents a retreat to the personal and existential (with emphasis on the negative connotations of “retreat”) that is precisely a result of the fact that the political dimension has been effectively foreclosed. The Party’s politicization of everyday life has effectively resulted in a situation where nothing can be addressed in political terms, since the meaning of “politics” has always already been predefined. The existential is then not the realm of freedom in any meaningful sense: it is entirely closed, entirely negative, the stifling residue that is all that is left when any prospect of a larger social and political engagement has been shut off. “Actually existing socialism” was demoralizing, not because it made everything political, but because it banalized and circumscribed politics to such an extreme extent that political action became unthinkable. (And it was only by literally doing the unthinkable, that a movement like Solidarnosc was able to become an effectively political force, and to oppose the State).
What really gives Provincial Actors its power is Holland’s intensely claustrophobic mise en scene. Most of the film takes place indoors. There are almost no establishing shots or even long shots (except in the few outdoor scenes). Nor does the camera move very much. Yet there are also very few extreme close-ups; we never get to concentrate on anyone’s face. Instead, there are mostly two-shots (or shots with three or four people) at such a distance that we see their upper torsos and faces, as we hear their conversation. The spaces in which the characters interact (cafes, bedrooms, backstage rooms) are usually small and crowded, but in any case we get very little sense of any one of these spaces as a whole. Often, in nighttime scenes, the screen is so dark that we can barely see the speakers at all. And significantly, we never get to see what is happening on stage, or what this production of Liberation is like, despite the fact that all the characters’ energies are directed towards putting on the play.
As far as the film’s editing goes, time is as ruthlessly compacted and fragmented as space. There are no set-ups or indications of how we get from one scene to another; so it often seems as if the camera has opened onto an action that is already in progress. The camera sometimes also cuts off actions before they have been completed; at other times, it lingers on in the dark, well after anything has “happened.” The reappearance of light on the screen after a shot in darkness, and a sharp cut, is all there is to indicate a new day. The film’s action doesn’t progress in anything like a smooth narrative arc, because the characters do not feel any such progression in their lives.
When crucial events do occur, Holland treats them quite elliptically. One of the (minor) characters commits suicide by jumping out of a window. But nothing in the film prepares us for this: we do not see his determination, his preparations, or even his motivation. Rather, the camera is with Anka in her apartment, when we see the falling body flash by, in the background, out her kitchen window. An unprepared-for event on screen always comes as a shock; but here the shock is backgrounded and muffled, which has the effect of making the film’s overall sense of disconnection and isolation even more extreme.
The soundtrack often contains music that is ominously dramatic, indeed melodramatic. But we only hear this nondiegetic music discontinuously, and not always at the ‘right’ time. In one of the few reviews of the film that I could find online, Janet Maslin of The New York Times complains (writing when the film was first shown in the US, in 1983) that Holland “approaches [her themes] clumsily, and with a surprisingly heavy hand. On more than a few occasions here, a bold chord on the soundtrack will accompany one melodramatic event or another, and the film’s key occurrences are awkwardly presented.” I think that Maslin is apprehending, but completely misunderstanding, Holland’s strategy throughout the film. Everything in Provincial Actors is clipped and discordant, by design, because the characters are unable to connect meaningfully with one another, and “the time is out of joint.”