Jerzy Skolimowski, the Polish director and actor, most recently seen in Eastern Promises as the combative and vulgar Uncle Stepan, is the subject of a retro at Anthology Film Archives, and upon the not-so-subtle urgings of a co-worker, went to see his first English language film, Moonlighting (1982). It's a suffocating little drama starring Jeremy Irons as Nowak, a Polish electrical engineer sent to London to refurbish the apartment of his boss. He sneaks in three other workers - but Nowak is the only one who can speak English. The boss is saving thousands by avoiding paying union wages. The operation is entirely illegal, and the film begins with Nowak's sweaty customs interrogation. Skolimowski positions a throbbing spotlight behind a pasty inspections worker picking through their spades and hammers - this is a London of constant menace and antagonism, or at least that is what Nowak experiences. Skolimowski focalizes the film through him, employing an almost constant use of voice-over from Irons - emphasizing his isolation and growing paranoia. He's a stranger in strange land.
The crux of the film surrounds the 1981 military coup in Poland, which staunched the increasing agitations of the Solidarity trade union - an anti-communist organization led by Lech Walesa. Nowak hears the news - and decides to hide the information from the workers, and bears down even harder on them to finish the project. Nowak loses contact with his boss in Poland, and quickly runs out of money. Skolimowski's mise-en-scene uses subtle ruptures in realism to reflect Nowak's deteriorating state of mind - wooden boards tip over, animals growl, a pedestrian he bumps in passing chases after him. His fear and longing for his girlfriend at home erupts in a TV screen hallucination, the one he used to get updates on the homeland. The style is resolutely documentary realism, but these bursts of the absurd place us squarely in Nowak's psyche. In voice-over he claims that he can understand what Londerners say, but not what they mean. Every phrase seems loaded with evil undertones, but he can never understand why. Everything is alien.
To stay alive, he becomes a shoplifter, nervously smiling at cashiers asks for refunds on stolen goods. Dave Kehr says that Irons' jittering performance is "worthy of Chaplin", and I won't argue with him. His character expresses everything through the body - every imagined slight or threat demands a recoil - which eventually morphs into a barely contained rage.
I hope to see Jerzy's Deep End sometime this week.