Unlike Heaven (2002), which tapped into the double lives and blind chances of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s earlier work, the newly-released film The Big Animal (2000), based on another of his unproduced screenplays, taps into his dry wit and sense of the absurd. It’s directed by the great Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr, who appeared in such Kieslowski films as Camera Buff (1979), Decalogue: Ten (1988), and Three Colors: White (1994), and there are few obvious updates to the screenplay since the time in which it was written in the early ’70s. Stuhr films in academy ratio (4:3×1) in black-and-white, and while there’s a great feel for the provencial Polish town of its setting, one gets the sense that little has changed in thirty years.
Stuhr, with his rotund face and weary eyes, plays Zygmunt, a late-middle aged banker who acquires a large, two-humped camel that he and his wife immediately embrace as a cherished member of the family. They awkwardly let it graze in their front lawn, eating whatever foliage appears in its path, before lovingly building it a kind of barn loosely reminiscent of Islamic architecture–one of the film’s subtle ironies as the two-humped camel is indigenous to Asia rather than Arabia.
But the unassuming camel soon becomes a town scandal, as people grumble about the mess it makes, the fact that it can’t be registered because camels do not appear as an option in the hall of records, and most of all because Zygmunt insists on taking the seven- or eight-foot tall animal on walks, strolling through town with pride and enjoying the day with his idiosyncratic pet. Kieslowski’s distate for bureaucracy and social conformism is on full display, but Stuhr wisely refrains from overplaying his types. The whispering and exasperated townsfolk always remain comically believable, their innate distrust of Zygmunt’s motives and blatant individualism is expressed through the sort of suggestive tones and oblique phrasing one could imagine actually occurring within a town obsessed with proper social codes. Stuhr’s camera frames the action with aplomb, cutting to wide shots at the end of many scenes in order to underscore the absurdity of the situations.
Kieslowski adapted his script from the novel Wielblad by Kazimierz Orlos, but the scenario inevitably recalls an anecdote he was fond of telling:
There are many events in my life which I believe to be part of my life and yet I don’t really know whether or not they happened to me. I think I remember these events very accurately but perhaps this is because somebody else has talked about them. In other words, I appropriate incidents from other people’s lives. . . . I was going to infant school and clearly remember walking with my mum. An elephant appeared. It passed us by and walked on. Mum claimed she’d never been with me when an elephant walked by. There’s no reason why, in 1946, after the war, an elephant should appear in Poland, where it was hard even to get potatoes. Nevertheless, I can remember the scene perfectly well and I clearly remember the expression on the elephant’s face. . . . After a while, I lose control of these incidents which I steal and which I start to describe as having happened to me.” (Kieslowski on Kieslowski, edited by Danusia Stok)
If Stuhr has appropriated Kieslowski’s experience to some degree, it’s fitting that he casts himself in the lead and offers a typically nuanced performance that walks a fine line between heartfelt tragedy and humorous pathos. When Zygmunt learns the camel grunts in time to his clarinet and Zygmunt fancies certain tunes as being particularly apt to engender a reaction, Stuhr excitedly stations himself in front of the animal and with blazing eyes emits a tune that bonds man and beast, a touching juxtaposition that epitomizes the film’s general thrust.
The Big Animal is a modest film, clocking in at just over 70 minutes in length, but Stuhr’ sure hand with his material and the effective performances make it a memorable parable about the spark of individuality within a stolid and rigid society. I recently joked with a friend that if you see one camel movie this summer, it should be The Story of the Weeping Camel, but Stuhr’s quiet little gem wouldn’t be such a bad choice, either.