(written for MovieMail in 2006)
I wrote about this together with Karoly Makk's peerless 1971 film, Love, but I revised the text of that for a podcast I did in 2010 so I'll put that up separately.
The theme of washing and touching another person is central to both films and both feature brief but concentrated moments which are pivotal in this regard. In Love, the bedridden Mother is often shown with her hand outside the sheets, needing touch but resentful too that it can’t be her son who touches her: ‘When I die, only my son will touch my hand…if my son can’t hold my hand then I want to be alone.’ Scenes of contact are used sparingly and are all the more tender because of it. When Luca washes her mother-in-law’s hand, sponging it, holding it, towelling it dry, she prolongs the touch beyond the perfunctory needs. It is a brief but central moment to the film. It is a touch that neither prefers but because of the absence of János – one’s husband, the other’s son – it is all they have. It exemplifies just how thoroughly the politics of state repression have affected the most intimate moments of people’s lives.
The politicisation of touch is just as central in Another Way, which has at its heart a relationship between Livia and Eva, two journalists working for the same magazine. The scene that draws together the ambivalence at the core of their relationship occurs after Eva has left the magazine, unwilling to compromise or cut a controversial article, and returned to her mother’s house in the country. After an absence of months and unanswered letters, she is visited by Livia, who arrives with a small suitcase. Their relationship is still undefined – their mutual attraction was obvious in the city but Livia was unwilling to fully act upon her feelings. Now she has left her military husband to visit Eva, who has been working in the kitchen and whose hands are covered up to the wrist in sticky dough. Livia hesitates outside the house; Eva picks dough from her fingers. Then Eva looks up and smiles the most disarming, the most beautiful of smiles. Her eyes sparkling with tears and happiness she beckons Livia towards her with sticky fingers. The promise of touch between them is there but also its present impossibility, she is the predator, the sticky trap, but in the least predatory of environments, her mother’s kitchen. I would swap an awful lot of cinema for that one brief sequence.
Throughout the film there is an ambivalence about the way Eva is represented. The first we know of her is that she is dead. A bird of prey flying away from the scene of her death is an expression of her soul escaping the concerns of the earth but it is also sinister, a bird of prey, a heavy dark bird; wolves howl in the background. She is compared to a spider waiting in the corner of her web, and is often shown at the edges of scenes but she is also more nervous than predatory. The musical themes that accompany Eva and Livia’s affair also show this ambivalence; the melancholy sweetness of guitar music is contrasted with a nervy theme on a saxophone. All this is indicative of Makk’s interests as a director. He says, ‘I feel most at home with irresolvable or contradictory human relationships.’ The tragedy is that it seems Eva’s irresolvable fate has continued with her into death.
As with Love, there is a sureness of cinematic touch here, a feeling of rightness in the use of angles and editing. It’s in the simple things that could well pass by without notice; in Love, when János travels home after release on the tram, we look at him from above, watching him from the point of view of a standing passenger but also at an angle which, allied with the sound of the tram, gives a queasy feeling that we can well understand János is feeling. In Another Way, you need look no further than the scene already mentioned with Eva beckoning with her dough-covered hands. Livia moves forward and her face fills the screen for a few moments, allowing us to regard her as the face of a soon-to-be lover. Makk doesn’t overlook the small details either - witness the bird's wing chipping in the enamel bowl immediately after the opening credits.
These deft touches would be undercut if unsupported by good performances and mention needs to be made of just how good the acting is by the two Polish women who inhabit the lead parts, Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieslak and Grazyna Szapolowska (the latter familiar from Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love and No End). They are perfectly cast, and their relationship trembles with the uncertainty of life.