May 5, 2015

In an Old Manor House or The Independence of Triangles

As an American of solely Western European stock, I find there to be a certain alien quality to virtually all things Slavic and I say that as someone that has spent much time around actual Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians, thus I find their to be a certain extra eerie quality to Eastern European horror cinema, especially of the Polish sort. Indeed, even simply looking at vintage Polish film posters, one can sense that there is something singularly dark and moribund about the Polish collective unconscious. With my recent enthrallment with the delightfully decadent anti-communist cult classic Pożegnanie jesieni (1990) aka Farewell to Autumn directed by Mariusz Trelinski, I decided to track down more film adaptation of works by the film’s source writer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka ‘Witkacy’) and eventually happened upon a particularly preternatural piece of Polish horror that mixes philosophy, metaphysics, and politics in a psychosexually sick yet almost shockingly cultivated supernatural form that pays respectful tribute to the man whose plays the work is based on. Indeed, the regrettably absurdly unknown work W starym dworku czyli niepodleglosc trójkatów (1984) aka In an Old Manor House or The Independence of Triangles aka In the Old Manor House directed by Andrzej Kotkowski is based on two plays by Witkacy, including W małym dworku (1921) aka Country House and Kurka Wodna (1921) aka The Water Hen, and it offers a particularly aesthetically refined instance of what one might describe as Polish absurdist Gothic horror that includes, among other things, themes of cross-generational incest and cuckoldry, uxoricide and filicide, spectrophilia, and class warfare of the mass murderous commie sort. A work that somehow manages to do the seemingly impossible by seamlessly interweaving Gothic horror with (meta)politics and philosophy, Kotkowski's film is indubitably an underrated classic of sorts that would surely gain a cult following outside of Poland if it actually had some sort of international distribution. Beginning with a wealthy patriarch murdering his second wife with a shotgun after discovering her making love to his somewhat effete adult art fag son from a previous marriage, In an Old Manor House tells the obsessively atmospheric and eerily and oftentimes eccentrically erotic tale of a vengeful whore ghost who haunts the Polish countryside while seducing and slaying men in most bizarre fashions. Set in turn of the century Poland before the peasants mindlessly revolted and featuring an impotent artist as the central protagonist, the film also seems to express Witkacy’s less than flattering philosophy on the place of the artist in society as a whole, albeit from a intriguing post-revolution perspective after the commies had wiped out so-called bourgeois degeneracy and installed their delightful little real-life dystopia. Starring actors and actresses that were featured in various great European dark arthouse works, including Beata Tyszkiewicz of André Delvaux’s The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (1966) aka De man die zijn haar kort liet knippen and Gustaw Holoubek of Wojciech Has’ The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973) aka Sanatorium pod klepsydra, In an Old Manor House sometimes feels like a classic fairytale on acid with its mystical wooded setting, catchy songs, and supernatural elements, albeit with a dubious moral compass and dark sexuality that reminds the viewer of the seemingly irreparable spiritual and cultural damage that communism has had on Poland. 

 Undoubtedly, you know you’re a cowardly cuckold of a half-man when your prepubescent daughters mock you over the fact that your wife is secretly carrying on a hot and heavy romance with your exceedingly effete artist son. Indeed, such is the superlatively sorry situation of powerful businessman, aristocrat, and patriarch Dyapanazy Nibek, who blows away his recklessly wanton wife Anastazja (Beata Tyszkiewicz) with a shotgun after catching her having sex with his surely scrawny art fag son Jezory. While Jezory begs his father not to kill his beloved stepmother, Dyapanazy simply replies, “I won’t let her destroy your life the way she destroyed mine,” ultimately not realizing that his audacious act of coldblooded murder will have rather deleterious consequences for both him, his son, and the rest of the family. After killing his wifey, Dyapanazy decides to invite his recently widowed cousin Aneta aka ‘Annette Wesiewiczowna-Nevermore’ (Grazyna Szapolowska of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love (1988) aka Krótki film o milosci) to stay with him and his family at his large ancient country mansion in the hope she will eventually become his wife, but ultimately, not unlike Anastazja, the woman will become the lover of the patriarch's pansy son Jezory.  Notably, Jezory and Aneta are about the same age as they both first met one another as young kids and it is insinuated that they sexually experimented with one another. Meanwhile, after their mother is killed by their father Dyapanazy, mischievous preteen little girls Zosia and Marysia, who have certainly inherited the subversive spirit of their progenitor Anastazja, decide to bury their baby dolls whilst singing a most morbid nursery rhyme with lyrics like, “La La – three small kittens…their brains eaten by grey maggots. La La – four small kittens…dad went away to a wretched woman.” Undoubtedly, Zosia and Marysia seem to realize in a subconscious sort of way that they will soon be joining their mother for eternity. 

 The day that cousin Aneta arrives at the Mansion, she unwittingly ruins dinner and starts a fight between father and son by asking about Anastazja, with Jerzory stating of his deceased mistress-cum-stepmother, “She was brilliant and beautiful. What dad did to her was terrible […] Why is my own father such a bastard,” and Dyapanazy angrily retorting to his progeny, “Watch your tongue, you sissy.” After berating his art fag son, Dyapanazy opts to reveal to Aneta that he indeed killed Anastazja, proudly stating, “Yes, I killed her. I shot her like a dog in heat. I married her against the family’s wishes. And she was lying to me. Can you imagine? I couldn’t stand it. To make things worse, Jezory was her lover. My wife’s lover. And that’s why I killed her.” Rather inexplicably, after the proud patriarch boasts of killing his wife, deceased dame Anastazja appears out of nowhere in ghost form and contradicts her homicidal hubby by stating, “It’s not true, Dyapanazy. I died of my own free will. I wanted to die…and I died.”  Not only does Anastazja contradict Dyapanazy, but she also reveals that she was the mistress of his best employee Ignacy Kozdron, who is the manager of his business and who the she-bitch ghost lovingly describes as, “my Romeo with abacus.” To demonstrate his love for her, Jerzory reads Anastazja poetry that he has written for her, somberly stating, “Bloodless paleface…sublime death mask…Candles burning in the final hour…,” but the sensual spirit is less than impressed with his literary longings. In fact, Anastazja breaks Jerzory’s heart by telling him that she never loved him and describes his belief that she loved him as one of his many “artistic delusions.” Ultimately, Anastazja visits Jezory that night and tells him that he must forget about her and marry his cousin Aneta, which he ultimately does. Jezory has been unable to paint or write poetry every since Anastazja died, but Aneta ultimately restores his questionable artistic prowess, or lack thereof. Rather unfortunately for him and his entire family, Jerzory’s artistic inspiration does not last long. While Anastazja gives him the artistic advice, “The most beautiful and powerful art is the art of lying. All artists should be aware of that,” Jerzory ultimately never takes heed of her insights and ultimately stays true to himself, thereupon ultimately having rather horrific consequences. 

 When Anastazja coerces her two young daughters Zosia and Marysia to drink green poison and the two little girls ultimately die, Jerzory decides it is time that he murder his dead lover/stepmother for a second time. While Dyapanazy theorizes that Zosia and Marysia deaths are “Anastazja’s revenge,” the ghost rationalizes her murdering of her two daughters by stating to Jerzory, “You’d seduce them if it wasn’t for your cousin who was ready to seduce you first.” Somewhat curiously, Anastazja goads Jerzory into killing her by stating, “Shoot me now or I’ll despise you forever like you were a dog,” so the artist shoots her in the stomach with a shotgun. Rather bizarrely, as Anastazja succumbs to her wounds, a hand appears out of the ground and before Jerzory knows it, a large old tree is uprooted and a somewhat dorky four-eyed teenage boy with a dead serious facial expression appears from under it. The boy is Jerzory and Anastazja’s posthumously ‘born’ bastard son Tadeusz and he will eventually become the ultimate prodigal son as an angry young man who leads a revolution against his entire family in tribute to his forsaken mother. As Jerzory curiously states upon seeing the boy for the first time, “I might be his father, though I hate children.” When Jerzory brings Tadeusz back home, Dyapanazy asks his son who the “worm” is and the artist replies, “He’s Tadeusz. He came out of the ground” and reveals that he is his son. After Dyapanazy says he likes Tadeusz and Aneta is introduced as the boy’s ‘mother,’ Jerzory states to himself, “Finally I created my own family. I can start a new life…But can I stand this?” Of course, Jerzory’s family will be an abject failure. 

 After Jerzory and Aneta have a large public wedding, a local peasant describes how he wishes he was the artist and how he feels like “manure,” to which another prole resentfully replies to by describing the artist and his family as “maggots” that are “on the carcass of some prize cow from the past.” From there, the subversive peasant goes on a rant about creating a utopian “new order” that rejects everything from the past and creates “Everything new. New machines, New paintings…Symphonies, poems, dances, everything.” While the peasants are talking, the ghost of Anastazja once again appears and attempts to incite the proletarians by poetically stating, “Society is a woman. She needs a male to rape her. Am I wrong?” After he talk with the peasants, Anastazja seduces her old lover Ignancy Kozdron and intentionally causes him to drown in the process, thereupon causing Dyapanazy to lose his best employee. To the chagrin of Jerzory, an exceedingly arrogant psychopath named Ryszard Korbowski is brought in to replace Ignancy and he soon begins a lurid love affair with the artist’s wife Aneta. After calling his weak nemesis a “cheap painter,” Ryszard proudly states to Jerzory regarding his wife, “I’m her lover…And thanks to her dead husband…I have a salary too.” Ryszard is a ‘fascist’ of sorts who states regarding any citizen that dares to rebel against his planned utopia, “…And if you don’t want to work, a bullet in the head. A risky experiment perhaps…But we’ll have to sacrifice ourselves.” When Dyapanazy questions whether or not Ryszard’s planned political system will be a democracy, he replies, “It would be a so-called democracy but without parliament’s bluff. What people need is a true fictional religion. Not some kind of substitute dream of a general strike. People yearn for a new religion. But we must control it. Make it a social matter.” Notably, when Jerzory asks Ryszard what place “truth and beauty” will have in his proposed utopian society, the smug fascist true believer replies, “The future will not need that. They’ll be happy. Isn’t that enough?,” thereupon causing the artist to laugh hysterically. Indeed, Jerzory ultimately becomes both a sexual and cultural cuckold of sorts while Ryszard is in charge. 

 Naturally, phantasmagoric femme fatale Anastazja continues killing men around the countryside, including Dyapanazy’s servant Mr. Maszejko. When Anastazja visits Jerzory and asks him about his love affair with his wife Aneta, the artist replies, “Don’t even talk about love. I’m just a marionette. I’ve nothing to do with that. I’m in pain worse than ever. I’ve started a new life.” Jerzory also reveals to the ghost that he is having a hard time bonding with his son Tadeusz, stating, “I’m attached to him…but he doesn’t love me.” Needless to say, Tadeusz becomes quite upset when he walks in on his (step)mother Aneta having sex with Ryszard and says to the latter, “I hope you burst.” Ultimately, Tadeusz completely loses faith in both his father and family in general, especially after having sex with his birth mother Anastazja during an act of spectrophiliac incest. While making love to her son, Anastazja tells Tadeusz, “Be the best in whatever you choose to do.” When Jerzory finds Anastazja and Tadeusz together, the latter remarks regarding his ghost mother, “I’m in love with her and I want to marry her.” Anastazja justifies her proposed marriage with their mutual son by stating to Jerzory, “His soul is beautiful. With me he’ll become great.” 

 Of course, everything begins to fall apart for the Nibek family after a successful communist revolution occurs and all private property is made illegal. Not surprisingly, Aneta ‘officially’ leaves Jerzory for his rival Ryszard and when the artist accuses her of being a “peasant’s mistress” and “spy,” she hatefully replies, “I’d prefer the evilest man to one chickenhearted like you. Painter!” In fact, Aneta goes so far as completely destroying Jerzory’s entire character, stating to him, “You’re repulsive…Neither musician nor painter. The very sound of your name kills art.” Despite originally being a fascist of sorts, perennial opportunist Ryszard naturally becomes a diehard commie revolutionary after the revolution. Meanwhile, Dyapanazy wisely states regarding Ryszard and ‘workers’ in general, “servants will always be servants,” as if to insinuate that communism only left the working-class all the more locked firmly in place in its chains. When Tadeusz decides to leave for good with his mother/lover Anastazja, his father Jerzory attempts to warn him by stating, “If you leave with her, you’re lost,” but the boy will not budge and retorts, “You only say that because you’re jealous. I’ll do as I please.” Of course, Tadeusz decides to completely part ways with his family for good and wage war against them after Jerzory shoots and kills Anastazja with a shotgun. Indeed, Tadeusz hatefully states to his father, “I see now. Your fake crimes, fake people, fake emotions. Everything’s fake. I won’t be like that. I won’t […] I’ll never forgive you.” 

 Towards the end of the film, Jerzory asks his father Dyapanazy why he did not kill him the day he killed Anastazja after finding the two having sex and the old patriarch replies, “I hoped you’d write, paint. I couldn’t let her destroy your life the way she destroyed mine. You have to be an artist. That was your mother’s wish.” Ultimately, Jerzory must confess that he is a failure as both a man and as an artist, stating, “I suffered, but it wasn’t artistic suffering. The last thing left for me in this life is death. The last thing to do.” When the ghosts of Anastazja and his two dead young daughters Zosia and Marysia appear at the family mansion, Dyapanazy somewhat humorously declares a toast to, “three failed generations,” as if he has finally accepted that all is lost in terms of his life and the future of his family. In the end, prodigal son Tadeusz leads a proletarian lynch mob carrying pitchforks to the Nibek home and self-righteously declares like some mini Trotsky, “Listen, what are you afraid of? They’re garbage not your masters. We, the people, don’t need this democracy. We can govern ourselves. We’ll create a real paradise. Without leaders and work. There’s no room for individuality or personality. The self has no place. Long live the masses.” Of course, the angry mob of bloodthirsty lumpenproles invades the Nibek home and exterminates what is left of the forsaken family. Before he can be butchered by a brigade of braindead bolsheviks, Jerzory somberly says to himself, “If I could paint I’d be scared less. But all this has no form. Only zigzags in eternal space” and then proceeds to kill himself by slitting his own throat with a straight razor. While Jerzory never had much control over his own life, he was at least able to end it on his own terms.  Notably, Jerzory looks quite peaceful after committing suicide, as if he has finally reached the sense of solace that he had always searched for but could never find.  As for Anastazja, she calmly walks away from the smoldering ruins of the Nibek estate with her two daughters as if her vengeful metaphysical mission as a haunting harlot has finally been fully realized.

 Undoubtedly, one of the things that makes In an Old Manor House or The Independence of Triangles such a penetrating piece of poetic cinematic horror is that it was inspired by about half a century of real-life commie horror and the curious social circumstances of aristocratic decadence that partially led to communism in the first place. Aside from being inspired by the anti-commie/anti-authoritarian writings of Witkacy—a man who, not unlike the protagonist Jerzory of the film, ended his own life when the Bolshevik butchers invaded his homeland—the flick seems to be influenced by Italian philosopher, sociologist, and economist Vilfredo Pareto’s classic text The Rise and Fall of Elites: An Application of Theoretical Sociology, which influenced Mussolini’s rise to power and describes how elites typically bring about their own demises via progressive moral degeneracy and absurdly supporting political movements that call for the destruction of the very class that they belong to (indeed, as Spengler rightly noted, Marx was a failed member of the bourgeoisie who never worked a single day in his entire life, not to mention the fact that Trotsky was the son of a wealthy kosher capitalist). Of course, Kotkowski’s film depicts the demise of the central family as the result of the hateful revenge of a forsaken prodigal son who was sinisterly sired via a sort inter-generational sin that involved incest, deceit, and even murder, among other things. Indubitably, In an Old Manor House also reveals Witkacy's influence from Otto Weininger in terms of its relentless depictions of misogyny. Indeed, ghost Anastazja practically channels anti-feminist Jewess Esther Vilar when she states, “All beautiful and healthy women lie all their life […] You can’t say what’s true and what’s a lie. The only certain thing in the world is a lie […] Only hunchbacked and crippled girls don’t lie. Perhaps they want to…but no one believes them. That’s why they’re so frustrated.” While only mere speculation on my part, I am sure that Witkacy would have appreciated Kotkowski’s film, which manages to do the seemingly impossible by channeling the delightfully decadent aesthetic and philosophical spirit of pre-commie Europe without seeming like an obscenely outmoded absurdity. 

 Aside from being based on two of the Polish artistic Renaissance man’s classic plays, In an Old Manor House will also surely interest Witkacy fans due to the fact that some of the scenes resemble some of the artist’s paintings and especially self-portraits (for example, a scene featuring protagonist Jerzory's image being reflected from various different angles via a mirror bears a striking resemblance to Witkacy's iconic 1915-1917 work Multiple Self-Portrait in Mirrors). In terms of the film’s emphasis on the suffering of an artist as a result of his ultimately tragic decisions, darkly erotic approach to necromancy and spectrophilia, singular darkly romantic aesthetic elegance and foreboding and oftentimes chiaroscuro-like arthouse approach to horror cinema, the only other film I can compare Kotkowski’s work to is the rather underrated British Sheridan Le Fanu adaptation Schalcken the Painter (1979) directed by Leslie Megahey. If Wojciech Has' The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973), which is based on a work by Witkacy’s kosher comrade Bruno Schulz, is a sort of celluloid nightmare haunted by the ghosts of pre-holocaust Polish Jewry, In an Old Manor House is a sort of celluloid Hades depicting the forsaken lost souls of the foredoomed pre-communist aristocracy. While Kotkowski’s film undoubtedly features an exceedingly unflattering depiction of the Polish aristocracy, it is arguably even less sympathetic to communists, who are more or less depicted as a mob of misguided and resentful philistine thugs that are ironically led by members of the upper-classes whose thirst for revolution has been sown in personal hatred for their own family members, thus reflecting the absurdity of the commie revolution in Poland and communism in general. Of course, as In an Old Manor House delightfully demonstrates, Witkacy knew all too well that communism was a sinister scam that was born out of hatred and resentment and could only bring hell on earth, especially to those that longed for it the most. Undoubtedly, it is only fitting that the film is a ghost story, as the legacy of communism will probably continue to haunt Poland and the rest of Eastern European for centuries to come, thereupon securing Witkacy's rightful place as the most important and prophetic Polish artist of his rather tragic zeitgeist. 

-Ty E

No comments: