Agnieszka Holland, Provincial Actors (Poland, 1978).
Holland’s Provincial Actors is a film that deliberately disorients the spectator in several different ways. The characters’ central concern throughout the film is that of a play which they are to produce. Although the play is talked about constantly throughout the film it is never shown. It is withheld and played down, but the overall sense is that the play is about Polish liberation. Films that usually deal with play production traditionally adhere to a certain formula. There is usually a lot of arguing and conflict during the period leading up to opening night, but the film generally ends in triumph when, despite all the fights and trouble, the play is put on as a success. However, in Provincial Actors the triumphant climax is denied and the audience is left with a great deal of fighting that ultimately amounts to a rather bleak ending. This is appropriate considering almost every other aspect of the film, including sub plots and form, also conveys an undeniably bleak if not altogether depressing energy.
The film is basically about a provincial actor, the protagonist, who, along with his wife and all the rest of the actors, work for a small, provincial theatre. As far as acting is concerned the theatre is basically a dead end, and yet although everyone is well aware of how bleak the future looks they do nothing to improve their situation. The protagonist is considered, especially by himself, the star actor of the company. He is generally treated as such, but it is apparent that he is destined to never amount to much. Furthermore, what seems like alcoholism coupled with his crumbling marriage have stricken him with a sort of self destructive depression. Nonetheless and to make matters worse for everyone involved, he is totally full of himself and his large ego portrays his notion of “star actor.”
The film’s form compliments its bleakness well. The music throughout is in opposition to the narrative and resultingly weird. A music that seems to signal eeriness or some sort of oncoming dramatic climax is never realized. Instead the music disorients the spectator as it sets one up to expect things that never come to pass. The greater part of the film is set indoor with medium shots, creating a sense of claustrophobia and fragmentation. The film also refuses the spectator any establishing shots, so each new scene is unfamiliar and seemingly disconnected. Such elements of traditional narrative are rejected so much so that even temporal relationships between scenes are obscured.
Coupled with the bizarre musical treatment all of these elements intensify the film’s overall sense of agony and tension.