The Big Animal Review
Developed from a script by Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Big Animal displays all the fineness of observation of human nature with that particular edge of humour that can be found in the late director’s Polish films Camera Buff, Three Colours White and Dekalog 10. Jerzy Stuhr starred in all those films and, having worked with Kieslowski on the scripts for two of his own earlier films The List of Adultresses and Love Stories, there is no-one better placed in bringing a lost Kieslowski script to the screen or as adept at drawing out the underlying satire and humanistic observations. Considering the relative failures of Tom Twkyer and Danis Tanovic to make anything notable out of the Kieslowski scripts for Heaven and L’Enfer, the arrival of a new film that is true to the spirit of the late director is certainly something to celebrate.
Sitting down to dinner with his wife Marysia one evening, Zygmunt Sawicki (Stuhr) discovers a huge camel in his front garden and adopts it as a pet. He proudly displays it, walking it though the town square to the amusement of the market dealers there. The animal becomes a major draw for the children in the area who want to give it funny names, but Zygmund is proud of the beast and wants to preserve its dignity. For similar reasons he resists the offers that come his way from businessmen who see the commercial potential of such an unusual attraction – persistent though some of them are. Zygmund’s camel provokes different responses in people, from bemusement to envy to outright hostility – why can’t he have a “normal, human animal”?. Eventually various local authorities step in – the Town Council, the County Council, the Veterinary Authority - complaining that it’s an “unwanted sensation” that is “no use to the community”.
There is evidently an edge of absurdity in the situation presented by the incongruous parading of a camel though a small Polish village, and no small amount of symbolism and allegory in The Big Animal. Playing clarinet in an amateur brass band, Zygmund Sawicki increasingly finds himself out of tune with the other members of the band and is asked to leave by the conductor, and a similar situation plays out as the ordinary bank clerk, without looking for it, suddenly becomes the centre of attention in a small town. Despite the obvious pitfalls of working with such obviously allegorical material, Stuhr handles this with a delicacy that is characteristic of Kieslowski’s best work, being non-specific and non-political, but nonetheless touching deeply on the nature of human behaviour, their fears and intolerance of the public when confronted by something out of the ordinary, something that threatens them because they can’t categorise or control it – be it someone with an unusual talent, possession, ability, appearance or someone who just won’t conform to accepted standards and rules.
These themes were very evident in other Kieslowski scripts developed around the same time for the early Polish films The Scar (1976) and Camera Buff (1979) - both films that starred Jerzy Stuhr and both of which examine a similar theme from public and personal perspectives. In The Scar, the people of a small town react with fear and incomprehension to a planned development in their area, despite the best intentions of a local government official. In Camera Buff Stuhr plays an obviously autobiographical Kieslowski, an amateur documentary filmmaker who finds his daring and honest approach to his craft places him out of step not only with the filmmaking group he works with, but with the Communist authorities. Stuhr pitches The Big Animal somewhere in between the very different tones of each of these films, never faltering in the portrayal of the seriousness of the political implications and consequences of pursuing an individual direction through the scenes of pubic meetings and gatherings of concerned citizens, but focussing more on the playful absurdity of the situation – emphasising it through with some lovely visual images – and through the gentle mocking and self-effacement allowing the finer personal and human qualities of the situation to shine through.
The Big Animal is released in the US by Milestone. The disc is encoded for Region 1 and is in NTSC format.
The original theatrical aspect ratio of The Big Animal would appear to be 1.66:1, but is presented here as 1.33:1. Financed by Polish Television, the film was doubtlessly composed with this ratio in mind and it sits well with the film, which is attractively photographed in high-contrast black & white and never looks like it has been compromised compositionally. The print quality is excellent, with sharpness, clarity, wonderful tones and, apart from some large reel-change marks, scarcely any flaws. It’s a pity then that Milestone’s transfer appears to be interlaced rather than progressive, resulting is a very distracting amount of aliasing, broken stepping on diagonal lines and a pulsating blur whenever there is any kind of movement on the screen. The impact of this is minimal on tube televisions, but on a progressive display, it is not going to look good at all.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is excellent. There is good stereo separation and mixing, picking up all the little details with clarity and no trace of any background noise.
English subtitles are provided, in a clear white font and are optional.
Milestone have given this rather small film an impressive selection of extra features. Controlled Destinies: An Interview with Jerzy Stuhr (30:57) is very much focussed on personal issues and the actor’s outlook on life, covering his family background and his career progression through TV, comedy, cabaret, film, theatre and teaching. Film Chronicle: The Making of The Big Animal (4:36) is a brief interview with Stuhr, giving an overview of the themes and evident difficulties in adapting an unusual fable to the screen. The Big Animal American Trailer (2:01) however fails to capture the film’s charm and character. Better than any commentary and much more accessible and informative, a Big Animal Press Kit PDF document included in the DVD-ROM section covers every aspect of the film and its creators, with 20 pages of interviews and background information. Fabulous.
The Big Animal is a lovely little film, full of delightful, clever humour and fine observational details on human nature. Jerzy Stuhr handles Krzysztof Kieslowski’s script with delicacy and a perfect understanding of the particularly Polish approach to the subject. It can certainly be read as a political allegory about Communist Poland, but to do so would to miss the very point that it’s more about people than politics, and its message is universal. A close friend and colleague of Kieslowski, Stuhr understands this better than most and has a perfect affinity for the timeless qualities of the work. It’s certainly a minor entry in the catalogue of Kieslowski works, but somewhat appropriately, it’s a small film with a grand vision. Milestone have clearly put a lot of effort into the release of the film, sourcing a fine print and including some exceptionally good extra features, so it’s a pity that the poor encoding of the non-progressive transfer somewhat lets it down.