[Originally printed in a February 1983 issue of The Weekly—which is to say, three years before they changed the paper’s name to Seattle Weekly. The film, ultrarare for decades, has just been released on Blu-ray in the United States.]
Moonlighting is some kind of masterpiece. Masterpieces of any sort are always welcome, but not in the same way. Some inspire, some gladden, some leave one awestruck. Moonlighting is the kind of film that had me marveling throughout how anyone ever came up with such a great idea for a movie and, having come up with it, proceeded to realize that idea so completely, within almost comically modest means.
Four men, Poles, fly to England in December of 1981. They say they have come to buy an automobile, but what they’re really up to, under cover of their one-month visitors’ visas, is remodeling a flat that their boss has purchased in Onslow Gardens. “They say” actually means Nowak says—the only one who speaks or understands English. It is his responsibility to see the job done properly and to husband the meager living allowance to get them through the month.
For a while, Moonlighting plays as a deadpan Polish joke. Nowak (Jeremy Irons) and his compatriots go to the supermarket; Nowak grabs a shopping cart and so does each of the others, even though the foreman’s is the only cart that’s going to end up with groceries in it. Back home at the unfurnished flat, two-liter cans of beer are carefully opened and emptied into several dozen plastic cups, so that the tins can be used as soup kettles. Since the entertainment budget is minimal and the temptations of materialist London are legion, Nowak shrewdly spends the whole allotment on a secondhand TV set. The picture tube vouchsafes two wobbly minutes of a soccer match, and dies.
Such jokes provoke rueful smiles rather than dismissive hohohos, for we never lose sight of the fact that, in its peculiar way, this is a survival movie. In their parceling-out of food, money, energy, and precious few pleasures during their sojourn in an alien land, these are doggedly heroic men. And when, a week or so after their arrival in that alien land, Russian tanks roll into Poland, they become men without a country.
It is here that Moonlighting‘s most disturbing twist comes: only Nowak learns what is going on in their homeland, and he dare not tell his comrades lest their whole expedition cave in. So the work continues, with Nowak becoming an ever-stricter taskmaster, even denying the men the right to leave the house and perhaps glimpse one of the Solidarity posters spreading over London billboards. He becomes their jailer as thoroughly as the Soviets have become the jailers of the Polish people. But because he is a decent fellow acting for what he perceives as the best—because he regrets what he must do and is not even free to express that regret, or his own fears about what’s become of home, the men’s families, his own wife—Nowak never forfeits audience sympathy.
Besides, he’s our point-of-view character, our index not only to the rules, but also to the uncanny frissons, of the game writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski is playing. It is because of Nowak’s growing paranoia about his wife’s fidelity, for instance, that the window across the street in that apartment where a man resembling Nowak’s boss pays clandestine visits to a married woman, becomes a kind of fantasy screen on which Nowak’s fears are projected. The window is real, the lovers are real; yet we get the feeling that any piece of the normal, everyday world—and the environs of Moonlighting are so normal, so everyday—can turn eerie on us, become fraught with portent we can neither account for nor shake off.
The economy of Skolimowski’s means and the suggestiveness of his idiosyncratic vision merge perfectly. What did he need, really, to tell his tale of four poor schmucks caught in absurdist limbo? Apart from video images on the TV sets in an appliance store window Nowak passes, “Poland” visually exists via several tight setups (e.g., a customs official glowering under blinking fluorescent tubing and a clattering fan while Nowak and company display their “luggage”—their tools). Skolimowski could have shot these in an English warehouse, and probably did; they’re all the Poland we need. The English locations—the market, a few other shops and stores, some streets and alleyways—are surely just what they appear to be, yet under Skolimowski’s darkly humorous gaze they turn … unreliable, unstable.
Why should a child’s soccer ball happen to smash the glass in the neighborhood phone box the first time Nowak wants to call home? Why should it be so giddily unnerving that, just when Nowak, trying to put the make on a salesgirl, points at a poster in a sporty clothing shop, the poster proves to be mounted on a changing-room door, which swings open to reveal a half-clad girl? Why should the simultaneous groaning, spluttering collapse of every plumbing joint in the flat seem like the end of civilization as we know it, while remaining, on a naturalistic level, sweetly sad proletarian slapstick? Roman Polanski would sense out madness in these pixilated rhythms, these crinklings of the world’s skin. Skolimowski preserves a zany cheerfulness: he takes desperation as a dare and, as the embattled Nowak must eventually do, digs in to live off the land, however unprepossessing it seems.
Skolimowski (who has principally lived and worked in England for the past decade or so) conceived of Moonlighting within days of the December ’81 coup, wrote the screenplay in a week and a half, arranged the financing ($2 million) during a tennis match, made the film, and showed it at the Cannes Film Festival in spring 1982. One looks at the end result—its clarity, its directness, its effortless suggestibility—and shakes one’s head. Of course! Why not? Why shouldn’t all films be made this way? How inspiring. How gladdening. And as the unforgettable last image rolls on in one’s brain, how awesome.
Copyright © 1983 by Richard T. Jameson