Thursday, June 23, 2011
The Saragossa Manuscript
Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript, based on the novel by Jan Potocki, is a delightful, dizzying film that, over the course of three rapidly paced hours, unfurls a series of interconnected stories in which truth, fiction and fantasy deftly change places over and over again. It's a story of magic and poetry and fiction, all of it built around the manuscript of the film's title, a book that contains stories, and stories within stories, and stories within stories within stories, each new tale flowing out of the others, overflowing with wit and imagination and mystery.
The opening scene sets the tone. A soldier walks dramatically across a courtyard, as his fellow soldiers charge past, on foot or galloping on horses, running into battle. Mortars explode around them, the soundtrack is filled with screams and shouts, and men fall and die. One man falls right next to the first soldier, apparently shot, but when the first soldier walks over to the corpse, the dead man leaps to his feet, grabs his rifle, and leads the retreat as the rest of the army suddenly reappears, running away. Finally, the first soldier, who had previously cowered behind a wall during all this fighting, shouts to rally a charge as his fellow men run in the opposite direction, but his spurt of bravery lasts barely a few seconds before he ducks into a nearby building. It's a surreal, comical scene that deflates the supposed honor of warfare, compressing the entire span of a bloody battle into an absurdist farce lasting less than a minute.
This soldier, as it turns out, has little to do with the rest of the film; he's merely the first of several portals leading progressively deeper into the film's labyrinth of stories. The soldier holes up in an inn, where he discovers a thick book filled with lurid drawings and wild tales written in Spanish, the manuscript of the film's title. Another soldier — from the opposing army — soon joins him and together they begin reading from the book, which the enemy soldier says tells the story of his own grandfather. Has never returns to these two men, huddled around the book. They escape from their present, from the building crumbling all around them beneath the barrage of explosions, and disappear into the stories contained in the book.
The first part of the film is focused on the story of Alfonse Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski), a captain of the guard trying to travel to Madrid. His journey is interrupted by mystical events when he encounters a pair of Muslim princesses (Joanna Jedryka and Iga Cembrzynska) who seduce him and then leave him the next morning to awake atop a pile of skulls, lying on the ground beneath a pair of hanged outlaws. Alfonse is haunted by ghosts and visions, and seemingly trapped in an endless loop. Every time he tries to set out on his adventure again, he passes through the same craggy, barren territory, but can't seem to get away from the haunted country inn where he spent his night with the two mysterious women. He's beset by phantoms, arrested and tortured by the Inquisition (who lock him in a tremendous horned metal mask), rescued in a chaotic swashbuckling battle by outlaws, and is finally whisked away to a nearby castle to regroup while listening to a series of stories and adventures that lead further and further away from Alfonse's own narrative.
Has shifts tones admirably throughout the film. The film is often farcical and satirical, mocking the pretensions of religion and the stiff nobility of the aristocratic class. Alfonse's father is a nobleman who obsessively fights duels to defend his honor against imagined slights. At one point, Alfonse says his father fought ten duels in a single day in order to avoid an argument; a good thing he did it, Alfonse says, with seemingly genuine relief, or else there would have been an unnecessary argument. In one of the film's most broadly comic segments, the elder Van Worden interrupts another lord's dinner to lead him outside for a duel over a frivolous matter. The two men walk slowly, bowing to one another at every corner, and then finally meet for a duel; Van Worden gets stabbed, retaining his courtesy all the while, and the other man excuses himself to return to his meal.
The film's battle sequences are also comic, and obviously artificial; they feel like boys' games of swordplay, deftly choreographed with people running in and out of the frame as Has' camera pans fluidly to track the fighting. The stark black-and-white cinematography is also well suited to the more gothic horror touches, though much of the film's magic, as in the later work of Jacques Rivette, turns out to be largely play and gamesmanship. Has continually subverts the drama of his own film, as in one sequence where Alfonse visits a chapel where a man possessed by demons is attended by a priest. The possessed man initially seems quite frightful and horrifying, but when the priest orders him to tell his story, his screams and squeals seamlessly give way to a mannered, soft-spoken voice as he politely explains how he came to be possessed in this manner.
In the second half of the film, Alfonse's story is pushed into the background as he stays at a castle where he listens, along with some companions, to the nested stories of the gypsy Avadoro (Leon Niemczyk). Avadoro's stories of his "youthful adventures" lead inexorably inward, further and further into a maze of stories. He tells a story in which he soon enough meets a character who tells him a story, and that story too leads to a point where someone begins telling a story, until the (multiple) framing stories are nearly forgotten. Has cleverly keeps breaking away from these intricate stories to remind the audience what is going on, and at one point Alfonse, an audience surrogate trying to absorb all of this, counts off on his fingers who's telling stories to who, trying to make sense of the multiple layers of fiction and artifice.
The film nests stories within stories within stories, erecting complex structures that burrow further and further away from reality, into the past, into ghost stories and tales of demons and devils and, especially, stories of love and romantic scheming. The film's text repeatedly comments, self-reflexively, on all these metafictional layers. At one point, when Avadoro interrupts his story of a nobleman haunted by a friend who died in a duel, the listeners comment that he has a real mastery of the storytelling arts, that he understands how to leave a story dangling with suspense. The layered structure contributes to the sensation of being haunted, of passing from one absurd situation to another while losing one's grip on concrete reality. "I've lost the feeling of where reality ends and fantasy takes over," Alfonse says, to which Rebecca responds, "you meant to say: poetry." At moments like this, the dialogue is very self-conscious, commenting on the story itself and the nested structure of the film, suggesting that as much as anything, this is a film about storytelling, about fiction and poetry.
These breaks in the storytelling that dominates the film's second half also provide an opportunity for Alfonse's companion Pedro Velasquez (Gustaw Holoubek) to discourse on mathematics and philosophy, which he sees as interconnected. His philosophical musings punctuate Avadoro's occasionally interrupted story, and at one point he suggests that poetry — as found in the gap between empirical mathematics and a complete understanding of the world — is very close to life itself. Perhaps he's suggesting that this film's endless web of stories, packed with mystery and romance and unresolved absurdities and strange coincidences, is really not as wild as it seems, but is in fact an accurate depiction of the absurdity and strangeness of real life. Or maybe not.
After all, the film is also satirically cutting, as in its depiction of a paranoid religious penitent who's easily frightened and moved to fits of self-abnegation such as hairshirts and flogging. And the film keeps suggesting prosaic, worldly sources for its mystical and supernatural elements, only to upend those practical explanations for further intimations of the otherworldly. One of the film's funniest stories is the tale of the woman who, despising her older husband, concocts a series of seemingly supernatural incidents to convince him that he's being haunted from beyond the grave. Her giggling confession to a lover of what she's doing is delightful, as is the story-within-the-story in which she runs around the house making ghostly voices and leaving tricks to frighten her husband. But the story is left hanging on a much more sinister note that suggests that not everything can be easily explained, and that the frivolous can soon turn deadly.
The Saragossa Manuscript is a witty, irreverent film that's equally deft with the sublime and the silly, with sketch comedy lunacy and poetic ruminations on love, philosophy and the supernatural. It starts out as a physical journey, a historical epic road movie, but it becomes a journey of the verbal, a journey into the past and into the fantastic through stories and storytelling. In that it's connected to antecedents like One Thousand and One Nights and The Canterbury Tales, other classics of storytelling that are stories and also about stories.