„What’s the matter with him? Can’t he act?“
As legend has it, these words were spoken on the set of John Schlessinger’s Marathon Man (1976). Well known Method actor Dustin Hoffmann had to play a scene in which his character was up for three nights in a row. So, what did Hoffmann do, being a true believer of Method acting as he was taught by Lee Strasberg? He didn’t sleep for three days. It was Laurence Oliver, giant of classical Shakespearean theatre, who commented upon Hoffmann’s acting using the aforementioned words…
What’s the matter with them? Can’t they act? The words come to mind when seeing The Clowns (Blazny, 2023) by Gabriela Muskala, shown in this year’s Warsaw International Film Festival 1-2 Competition. The film revolves around a group of students from a Faculty of Acting, who are planning rehearsals for their graduation film, when they hear that a famous director will direct it. We see him in a classical Method way, explaining that they need to show off their real emotions, putting some of their personal experiences in the scenes. And then the line between the rehearsals and the scenes in the film fades away, the actors become the scenes, the lovers become the traitors, their lives become the lives of the ones they are portraying and every line between fiction and reality starts to blur…
Sounds great, right? Yes, and as an idea the first hour of watching Muskala’s film is fascinating, just because of that blurred line. She throws in some interesting philosophical ideas about acting—What’s acting? When is somebody acting? When not? What’s the influence of the camera?—but she lets all these ideas just drop to the floor.
This results in her film becoming the equivalent of the book that ends with the sentence that it was all a dream. As a viewer, you feel cheated. Everything was fake, there was no real drama, it was all, well… acted. The film bites in its own tail, by making everything so literally fake, there is nothing to care for, the investment in the characters on the part of the viewer was all for nothing, because they were not characters, just actors, and who cares about actors? The guy at the end only dies in the play, there he is, dancing on the beach again! Just as with clowns you know there is someone under the mask, who is just pretending. When the mask falls off, there is nothing there.
What a difference with another film in the same program, the magnificent Without Air (Elfogy a Levego). Everything that Muskala fails to do, debut director Katalin Moldovai gets right. That is: being in control of your subject matter. Making things round. Slowly, she builds up a circle of themes that revolves around poetry teacher Ana Bauch and her struggle with the morals of a small provincial town. And her efforts to break the circle. The main lead is played by Ágnes Krasznahorkai, daughter of Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and dramaturgist by profession. She works in real life with 12 till 20 year old students, often from a very troubling descent, learning them how acting can make a difference in their own lives.
That’s the life experience that Agnes Krasznahorkai brings to her performance of Ana Bauch.
And yes, she can act. No Method needed.
Edited by Savina Petkova
© FIPRESCI 2023