Thursday, August 4, 2011

Moonlighting, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1982

There’s little love lost between me and England, but one thing I have always embraced about the  "motherland" is its immigrant population. And related to the diversity of its immigrants, in London particularly, is the ease of entering the country if not of living there. When the four Polish protagonists of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting (1982) make it through immigration with cartloads of work tools, a bicycle and all manner of things not necessary for buying the secondhand car they tell the official is the purpose of their trip, I am convinced. And when Nowak, the only one of the four to speak English says, “I speak their language, but I don’t understand them” I knew exactly what he meant. With his usual subtley and irony, Skolimowski’s profile of the English teeters on the edge of farcical caricature, and yet, for those of us who have experienced this beguiling culture from the outside, Moonlighting is full-blown realism. It had me laughing out loud in a theater full of silent French people.

There is much to enjoy about Moonlighting, especially the careful way Skolimowski deals with the confusing tensions of inner life. Nowak's fantasy, paranoia, desire (played by Jeremy Irons), are woven seamlessly together with the external reality of cold, unfriendly London in the 1980s. Thanks to the skilful intertwining of the two, the film is as much about the loneliness and isolation, the delusions and imaginative wanderings of the migrant worker as it is about the absurdities of British behavior and the racism that runs and ruins the cultural fabric. The slow and very subtly moving narrative shows Nowak sliding in and out of guilt, recognition of his own weakness, feelings of power, control. The whole film is told through Nowak’s point of view, with the other three workers tentatively shown to shift from servitude to an explosion of anger at Nowak’s deception at the end of the film.

It is not just racism that is on display here. Other social ills we know to despoil daily life in England are slowly revealed. We see the neighbor yelling, hysterically, out of proportion to the Polish mens' apparent disturbance of his peace. I have come to accept such pent up, repressed anger, as part and parcel of daily life under the drab, leaden skies of London. It is somehow born in the depressing streets with everyone behind their perfectly painted doors. Emotion in these cold and depressing streets, lined as they are with perfectly painted doors and lace curtains in the windows, has to have an outlet, and so often, I have seen immigrants (including myself) as that outlet. And then when kids break the glass in the red phone box while Nowak is making a call at the beginning of the film, I was convinced. Moonlighting is rivetting partly because it takes us deep into the heart of residential London from the point of view of those who do not belong.

Nowak and his three men are in London for a month to renovate his boss's apartment, paid cash in hand, in the black. Nowak learns of the December 1981 military clampdown in Poland when he can't get through to his wife one Saturday for the regular call home. The isolation of Poland at this time is mirrored in the isolation of the four men in London: the English stare, whisper and distrust the Polish man because they are different from them. From the moment when they walk into the supermarket on arrival, dressed differently from the English, the men are the subject of scrutinizing looks, racist outbursts, and derogatory comments. As Skolimowski shows with verve, it’s not about the foreigners, it’s about the British.

Moonlighting is also a film about labor relations. Everyone is exploited: Nowak is exploited by his boss because he has not given him enough money to finish the job, Nowak exploits the other three men, deceiving them to get the job done whatever way he can. And then Nowak starts to steal for the same reasons as Michel in Pickpocket (1959), to survive the harsh reality of city life. And in clear references to Michel, although Nowak steals food not money, he takes his goods home and hides them. But Nowak is not in a Bresson film and there is no redemption from his sins, which are nevertheless, a form of self-sacrifice. 

Perhaps the greatest irony of Moonlighting, a film that was made with Poland trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and Britain in the grip of Margaret Thatcher's savage measures to privatize the country and wrap it in the cloak of Capitalism, is that the Poles now run London. From the young students who seem to have a monopoly on jobs in London’s chain coffee shops to the workmen and builders who do all the wealthy capitalists' home renovations, London has become a haven for Polish people wanting a better life.

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