What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Minimal Realism in Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida"

I like the look of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, and the feel of it. Pawlikowski has a poet’s gift for using objects, landscapes, and people expressively, so that they all become part of his vision. It’s this gift, I think, that makes Ida a rich, emotionally charged experience.

The best description of Pawlikowski’s technique that I’ve read is found in David Denby’s " 'Ida': A Film Masterpiece" (“Culture Desk,”, May 27, 2014):

The director and his fledgling cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, shot the movie in hard-focus black and white; they have produced images so distinct and powerful that they sharpen our senses. “Ida” might be called static were it not for the currents of emotion from shot to shot, which electrify the women’s relation to each other throughout. Clearing away clutter, Pawlikowski almost never moves the camera; many of the scenes are just long-lasting shots, fed by a single light source that often puts the faces in partial shadow (what we understand of these two women will always be limited). Sometimes the figures are positioned at the bottom of the frame, with enormous gray Polish skies above them, as if the entire burden of a cursed country weighed on its people. Both beautiful and oppressive, the bleakness of the landscape in winter suggests something uncanny in the air, as if we were watching a horror film without ghouls.

One can trace possible influences—Carl Theodor Dreyer, very likely, and Robert Bresson, and European art films from the sixties and early seventies like François Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” and also Polish movies made in the period in which “Ida” is set. But I can’t recall anything major that looks quite like this movie. Pawlikowski is not after commonplace realism but something you would have to call minimal realism, in which the paring away of cinematic junk makes our attention to what remains almost rapt: the clinking of the nuns’ spoons at a silent convent dinner, some gentle country sounds, the transfixing boredom of long drives through the flat landscape.

That “minimal realism, in which the paring away of cinematic junk makes our attention almost rapt,” is an excellent description of Pawlikowski’s style. I prefer it to, say, “stylistic austerity,” and variations thereof, which some critics are using to describe Ida’s form. See, for example, Dana Stevens, "Ida" (Slate, May 2, 2014): “In many ways, Ida feels like a film that might have been made anytime in the past 50 years. It’s set in the early 1960s, and its stylistic austerity and interest in theological questions often recall the work of Robert Bresson (though Pawlikowski lacks—I think—Bresson’s deeply held faith in salvation).”

The comparison of Ida with Bresson’s work is, I think, a mistake. Bresson’s films, particularly Diary of a Country Priest (1950), are austerely beautiful. But they’re also intolerably pious and inhumanly pure. In her capsule review of Diary of a Country Priest, Pauline Kael says of the young priest whose faith is neither understood nor accepted by his parishioners, “Does Bresson know what a pain this young man is? The priest’s austere spirituality may give the community the same sort of pain that Bresson’s later movies give some of us in the audience” (5001 Nights at the Movies, 1991). Ida is brief; it is spare; it is shot in black-and-white; it is dominated by the color gray (not because Pawlikowski wants to be austere, but because he wants to be true to the times (“What was that lovely city beneath Communism’s gray casing?” Adam Zagajewsky asks, in his memoir Another Beauty). But Ida also has jazz in it, and sex, and vitality. There’s a young naïve, pious Catholic nun in it, but there’s also a worldly, cynical, hard-drinking, nicotine-addicted aunt known as Red Wanda.

Ida is, as Anthony Lane says, in his "Road Trips" (The New Yorker, May 12, 2014), “a road movie, of sorts” (“Thus to our surprise, this small tale becomes a road movie, of sorts, and a journey back into a divisive past”). That “of sorts” is crucial. Most road movies (e.g., Thelma & Louise, The Motorcycle Diaries, Sideways) are wild rides. Ida is more solemn (Denby calls it a “spiritual journey”). But it’s still a thousand times wilder than Bresson’s painstakingly tedious and offensively holy Diary of a Country Priest. In Ida, two women – tough, wry Wanda and her young niece, Ida, a Catholic nun – set off by car to discover how Ida’s parents died. Their vehicle, a small, white Polish sedan (is it a Trabant? a Syrena? I’d love to know) has almost as much presence as the Norton motorcycle (“the Mighty One”) in Motorcycle Diaries. At one point, we see an intoxicated Wanda driving it, and in the next moment, we see it being hauled back onto the road by a handsome team of workhorses. I leaned forward to absorb this remarkable scene, but it vanished in an instant – just one example of Ida’s many wonderful, understated details.

Road movie landscapes are often ravishing (e.g., the gold-and-green Santa Ynez Valley in Sideways, the soaring Andean vistas in Motorcycle Diaries); not so in Ida. Well, let me qualify that. Ida’s landscape is ravishing if you relish, as I do, the beauty of bleakness – “the moon-gray landscape of eastern Poland,” as Lane describes it ("Ida," This is a landscape soaked in repressed memory, and Ida is an opening to it, an excavation of horrific memory buried in the Polish ground.


  1. Since you asked, it's a Wartburg, model 311 probably. Excellent review, btw.

    1. Very interesting. Thank you. I think Red Wanda’s Wartburg is destined for classic movie car status – right up there with Scottie’s white 1956 Desoto in Hitchcock’s "Vertigo."