Director: Paul Cox
Stars: Derek Jacobi (narrator), Leigh Warren & Dancers (dancers)
First viewing, via DVD
As Mario Andreacchio’s Paul Gauguin biopic Paradise Found attests, the lives and work of international artists are not beyond the purview of Australian filmmakers. In 1987, Paul Cox directed an acclaimed documentary about painter Vincent Van Gogh, titled Vincent, which featured narration of the artist’s letters by John Hurt. In 2001, Cox released a similar project, The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, trading letters for journals and easels for the stage to chronicle the mental deterioration of another tragic artist, the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Derek Jacobi, who also appears in Cox’s film Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, serves as narrator for this feature.
In the early twentieth century, Nijinsky was one of the world’s premier dancers. Following the outbreak of World War One, his ability to travel the globe performing was severely impeded. Consequently, he suffered a severe mental breakdown and experienced delusions, as chronicled in his diaries. Cox’s film does not dramatize or depict these events per se. Rather, Jacobi narrates Nijinsky’s diary entries over the footage – of nature, of dancers in performance, and of art and archival material – that Cox has assembled to visually symbolise or contrast these spoken words.
With this review, the late Paul Cox joins Geoffrey Wright and Gillian Armstrong (and next week Rachel Perkins) as directors who’ve had more than one film spotlighted on Down Under Flix. Human Touch, reviewed in the early days of the site and shortly after Cox’s passing, was indicative of Cox’s fondness for the arts and view of their centrality to the human condition, but couched this within a standard screen story. The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is another beast entirely, a passion project three years in the making and many more in gestation that does not come in readily palatable form. It’s neither narrative film nor dramatization – there is one of those out there, Herbert Ross’s Nijinsky with Alan Bates and George De La Pena – but nor is it a documentary. It is, simply put, the diaries rendered in spoken form with accompanying visuals and music, akin to something you might expect to view in a world class art gallery or museum. Cox himself aptly described it as a “cinematic poem” (see here).
Much like a poem, the finished product was the fruit of much solitary work. Whilst there were plenty of collaborators – including Jacobi, composer Paul Grabowsky, Adelaide-based dance troupe Leigh Warren & Dancers – Cox stated that he “made this film in the editing room” (see here). This is evident from the finished product, both in the way it assembles disparate footage and in its somewhat insular feel. Cox’s fascination with his subject is strongly felt, if not necessarily transparent to the audience. Viewers unfamiliar with Nijinsky’s work and with little sense of his accomplishments are, after a fleeting passage of introductory text, thrust directly into and bound to Nijinsky’s point of view for the remainder of the film. One is reminded of the documentarians played by Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Ben Stiller in While We’re Young, who become infatuated with the philosophical/intellectual figures at the core of their passion projects and are unable to wrestle them to completion.
And yet Cox does have a handle on his subject, and the shortcoming perceived above – that for Cox, Nijinsky’s text is all and context is naught – could equally be considered a strength. In its rendition and recreation of Nijinsky’s journals, The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is celebratory but also funereal, a work of mourning. Gradually it dawns upon the viewer (or at least this not-too-clued-in viewer) that Nijinsky is a deeply unreliable narrator – with many of his philosophies, attitudes, and fantasies being of the diseased mind variety – and the words and their accompanying images gradually become more unsettling. Much of the imagery is, admittedly, standard documentary filler (e.g. nature shots), but the dance sequences by Leigh Warren and Dancers are great: alternately entrancing, erotic, disturbing, and bizarre, sometimes within the space of a single performance.
In summary: Though I’d recommend the film, I do so with caveats. The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a hard work to warm to. It’s a very particular flavour of film, one without the usual reliable crutches to rest upon (i.e. narrative arcs and clearly delineated protagonists for feature films; concrete facts and incidents for documentaries), so the viewer has to rise to the occasion, much as one would reading Ulysses or The Waste Land. At times I was thoroughly ill-equipped for the task. But ultimately, the film is worthwhile: it’s a small film, but also a deeply felt, truly personal undertaking by its director, a portrait of one artist by another with a tangible, consuming, almost painful investment in its subject.
Next week: Rachel Perkins’ musical One Night the Moon (2001).