Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski, now 77 years of age, continues a prolific resurgence, having ended a sixteen year absence between 1991’s Ferdyduke and 2008’s Four Nights with Anna with another new feature, the somewhat arbitrarily titled 11 Minutes. Premiering in competition at the 2015 Venice Film Festival (where it was honored with a special mention), and selected as his country’s offering in the Best Foreign Language pool, it’s a masterfully controlled exercise of divergent personal dilemmas and eleven minutes across multiple lives just prior to their fated connection during a cataclysmic event. The enigmatic director recycles several of his prized motifs for a rendering of disconnection in the overly connected modern age in what ultimately stands as one of his most superficial films, calibrated specifically for an explosive finale which has nothing new to add to an old conversation but contains a spectacular payoff so visually arresting it nearly makes up for an overall lack of profundity.
In the middle of a busy city-square in Warsaw, several lives are about to converge drastically. While a lascivious film director (Richard Dormer) forces an aspiring and recently married actress (Paulina Chapko) to undergo a private audition in his hotel suite, her new groom (Wojciech Mecwaldowski) roves throughout the facade in an attempt to rescue her from most certain infidelity. A host of other denizens in the city are engaged in their own turgid plights, like a shamed professor (Andrzej Chyra) waiting for his son (Dawid Ogrodnik), and a window washer (Piotr Glowacki) and his mistress (Agata Buzek) sneaking into a room to watch pornography on his break. In eleven minutes, all of them are about to be disastrously connected.
We’ve seen this structured procedure many times before, paralleled a decade ago in popularized items from Hollywood (Crash, 2005) or many variations on the international circuit (Inarritu’s 21 Grams, Babel), when narratives of intersection proliferated endlessly, thus rendering Skolimowski’s film as an artifact of outdated storytelling. As a study of juxtapositions in the ‘surveillance age,’ there’s nothing here we haven’t seen examined countless times before, dating back to the early 90s at least, except now an abundance of artificial eyes results in the possibility of city/nation/global CCTV, an endless loop of human banalities sometimes spiked with uncoordinated drama. Choosing to open the film with segments of modern methods of communication, including iPhone and Skype footage, seems an unnecessary eyesore, except it establishes contemporary interaction as a necessitation, a veritable technological buffer.
As far as characterization, the handful of mostly unrelated characters in 11 Minutes are quite possibly Skolimowski’s most unimpressive concoctions to date, but then, how much can you really learn about a character when continually distracted by a litany of others stretched over an eighty minute running time? What is accomplished with these methods becomes interesting for different reasons, however, especially keeping in mind the director’s past films, which tend to prize male perspectives. The notion of agency is aggravated from the film’s onset, with focal point Paulina Chapko commenting on her husband’s injuries in the opening moment, asking “Can you even see anything?” Who and what is being seen, obviously, is what 11 Minutes is all about, but increasingly, a pattern regarding heterosexual relationship woes becomes apparent, each of these troubled souls wrapped up in some sort of dilemma regarding control, infidelity, or sexual transgression. It feels as if their combined negative energies result in the devastating climax, which reaches a boiling point, where fate seems to be playing a cruel joke on the impossible restrictions of marriage and/or monogamy.
Deliberating on Skolimowski’s Nabokov adaptation King, Queen, Knave, which features a series of automatons modeled after its female protagonist, Ewa Mazierska points out how these items are used to “convey the male desire to possess, subjugate, and destroy the female, and to do it over and over again.” At ground zero in 11 Minutes is Chapko’s Anna, an actress doing her best to sidestep the smarmy advances of an American director (a unfathomably campy Richard Dormer, who nearly ruins the film with his egregious gnashing and over-the-top attempt at uncontained, nostril engorged privileged male libido), while her jealous husband sniffs rabidly outside the penthouse where their inevitable transgression will ultimately transpire. Both of these men’s loss of control results in unspeakable tragedy (ultimately revealed as nothing more than a growing plume of smoke on a flickering screen amongst hundreds), taking down a slew of other characters on the lower levels of the hotel or at ground level, like the professor turned hot dog vendor who shares an innuendo laden conversation on hotdogs with nuns (we learn he was only recently released from prison); his courier son, who was nearly caught red handed in the bed of a married woman; a young lady (Ifi Ude) whose emotional outbursts resulted in the destruction of her apartment with her boyfriend, and so on and so forth. A slew of other storylines transpire, like a painter (Jan Nowicki) who is interrupted during his craft by a film crew (old modes of artistic expression overthrown by the new), and a young boy engaged in a burglary which goes wrong. But eventually, these strands belabor themselves, and one wonders if less characters would have allowed for more time to develop the ones who actually grab our attention.
If anything, 11 Minutes is Skolimowski’s most leveled playing field between the genders, the constraints of the narrative relegating everyone to a ‘type’ of person, each of them obliviously selfish to the presence of others, occluded by their own personal dilemmas. Anna may ask of her husband if he can even see anything, but in actuality, the punchline of 11 Minutes seems to say no one can see anything, distracted by the endless flickering screens in front, behind, and all around us, resulting in our eventual (and in this case, literal) consumption.
Sundance Selects releases the film on DVD only (though be thankful for availability because several Skolimowski titles, including the more recent Four Nights with Anna, did not receive US distribution), presented in 2.40:1. Outside of a handful of visually hideous asides utilizing various technologies (cell phones, webcam, CCTV, security cameras, etc.), Mikolaj Lebkowski’s rendering of Warsaw presents a cosmopolitan landscape, which takes a rather fantastical, heavenly sheen whenever inside Dormer’s penthouse, washed out in glaring whiteness. The fantastic final frames owe as much to editor Agnieszka Glinska and a hypnotic score from Pawel Myktien. Don’t fast forward to the end, but it’s a worthwhile payoff. No extra features are included.
Although not nearly compelling as it should be, 11 Minutes showcases a masterful auteur having fun with the craft, and while the material may feel cliché, Skolimowski has lost none of his visual prowess—but hopefully this film’s grand blowout won’t be his last great hat trick.
Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆