Against a shifting kaleidoscope of cinematic images, readings from Cahiers, the diaries of the legendary Polish-born Russian dancer Vaslev Nijinsky by Sir Derek Jacobi, provide a matching kaleidoscope of verbal images. The diaries were written in 1919 when Nijinsky had moved with his wife to St Moritz to escape his overbearing mentor, Diaghilev and had partially descended into madness. In these extracts, Nijinsky reveals his mystical worldview, recounts episodes from his life, and gives opinions on a variety of topics.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It would be a pity of only fans of Paul Cox and those with an interest in Nijinsky saw this film, because as films go, it’s about as pure cinema as you can get without losing yourself in pretention. Made, literally, with his own blood, sweat and tears, Cox has scratched a 30 year itch that he himself finds hard to explain; he hardly knows what to make of the film himself, except perhaps that there are elements of Nijinsky’s humanity to which Cox responds. Such as the barbarity of people in a world where the gods are many but the earthly butchers are kings. A couple of scenes are deliberately confronting, some are lyrical others briefly erotic in a studied way. The diary readings provide the structure, the skeleton on which the visualisations hang. As for Derek Jacobi, the choice is entirely fitting, since the readings are in translated English. The diversity of images, some still, some moving, some archival, some forged specially for the film, works to set up receptors in the audience for the words, but at the same time, some images seem to allude to Nijinsky’s view of the world. In other words the images are not to be seen always and solely as pictorial representations of the words of Nijinsky, but those intangible feelings he writes about so frequently in Cahiers. For me, Nijinsky works as a film that provides a deep and sure insight into Nijinsky’s being; that is, his view of the world, as well as his state of mind, and his sense of self. It’s not like any other film with a ‘biopic’ tag. If you like a challenge with rewards, Nijinsky will fit the bill; it’s more than the sum of its parts.
Review by Jake Wilson:
The greatest value of the films of Paul Cox may be as a record of a waning Australian ‘civilised’ sensibility – a kind of high-church reverence for the values of art. It’s a sensibility that rarely expresses itself in cinema, which may explain both Cox’s occasionally faltering style and his grandstanding view of himself as an outsider to the corrupt movie business. Like Martin Boyd as a novelist, he remains a proudly amateur filmmaker, in the root sense of one who works out of love. However, there are obvious dangers when a minor-key aesthete such as Cox tries to pass himself off as a poetic visionary – in this case, by associating himself with the dancer Vaslev Nijinsky, legendary as both a self-dramatising madman and a securely canonised genius. Even for those ignorant of ballet, Nijinsky’s diaries make fascinating reading: oscillating between mystical insight and manic delusion (‘I am God. I am everything. Life. The infinite.’) they’re clearly the work of a remarkable man. For this movie, Cox has hired Derek Jacobi to read out extracts from the diaries over a patchwork of non-narrative images: places visited by Nijinsky, tableaus of scenes from his life, restaged ballets, abstract doodlings with light and shade, a few archival photos. Jacobi’s fastidiously modulated delivery is a bit too actorish for my taste: the fluting tone of hurt astonishment reduces Nijinsky to a wide-eyed holy fool. Neither Jacobi nor Cox really do justice to the vigour of the original text – the exuberant strength underlying the megalomania. The lyrical shots of snowy landscapes, rustling leaves and running water are often attractive (if marred by pointless camera movements), but hardly forceful enough to represent the crazed bodily ecstasy of a dancer in love with the natural world. Indeed, the film deliberately shies away from visualising its subject – several performers are supposed to represent different sides of Nijinsky’s personality, but both the biographical tableaus and the dance sequences are kept shadowy and brief. It’s as if Cox takes Nijinsky as a symbol of the glory of great art, while acknowledging that only a shadow of this glory is present onscreen; the real thing remains hidden, out of reach.
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CAST: Read by Sir Derek Jacobi and featuring Delia Silvan, Chris Haywood, Vicki Attard, David McAllister and the Leigh Warren & Dancers Dance Company
PRODUCER: Paul Cox, Aanya Whitehead
DIRECTOR: Paul Cox
SCRIPT: Paul Cox
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Paul Cox and Hans Sonneveld
EDITOR: Paul Cox
MUSIC: Paul Grabowsky
CREATIVE CONSULTANT: Szakáts Kinga Gaspers
CHOREOGRAPHY: Alida Chase
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sharmill
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 25, 2002
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: AV Channel
VIDEO RELEASE: March 17, 2004