Reading some of the European reviews around the release of The Young Girls of Wilko (aka The Maids of Wilko), you wonder if the critics were in a late ’70s sentimental groove. The film seemed to have cast a spell, being a springboard for rhapsodic gushing. Exhibit A:
O Slavs! All it takes are a few men and women still enjoying some privileges but already relegated to oblivion, living on the banks of the river of life! A few unhappy souls who love but are unloved! And the sweetness of a new spring, the hypnotic spell of a bygone summer, tenderness in vain, and unexpressed despair… It is sad, beautiful and poetic. Yes, poetic, in the now often contested but irreplaceable meaning of that beautiful word – poetry.
That was from French critic Claude Mauriac, published in V.S.D. (You have to laugh at the ethnic shout-out that kicks it off.) But at least one Polish critic was just as squishy in their praise:
Andrzej Wajda’s growing talent becomes most evident when he enters territories, which are new to him. Wajda begins to stir our emotions. Previously, he fascinated, shocked, and thrilled. But this time he has touched my feelings. Yes, I was deeply moved by The Maids from Wilko. After seeing the film for a second time, I felt even more deeply moved. And the third viewing only intensified this reaction.
That was Jerzy Plazewski, writing in “Kultura.” He goes on to marvel at Wajda’s expressivity within a deliberately narrow and delicate mode of filmmaking:
It seemed as if the film-maker, known so far for his tendency to attack the viewer with as much expressive force as possible, had decided to test his expressive powers, reduced to only one range – the treble key – in order to see if he could still be the master of our imagination. And he has carried out this experiment by making The Maids from Wilko.
Fellow Polish critic Aleksander Jackiewicz begged to differ. Writing in “Zycie Warszawy,” he pointed out lack of subtlety in the film compared to the literary source. And yet, the change becomes a cause for more wistful romantic yearning on the critic’s part:
The motif of the transitory character of life is more conspicuous in Wajda’s film than in the original story. Some of its subtleties have vanished. Such departures are unavoidable. Things barely suggested by the narrative, the retrospective or the descriptive parts of the story, had to come to the foreground in the film. Similarly, literary characters had to become full-blooded people… As a result, The Maids from Wilko came to symbolise all the girls we once loved, and who seem to us, when we meet them again after many years, so mysteriously changed as to be nearly unrecognisable.
Lest the impression given that the film outed critics as a bunch of romantic schoolboys, there’s Teresa Rotskowska offering a feminine, if not feminist take, in her pricelessly titled: “Five Unhappy Women from Venus and a Tired Man from Mars” in Kwartlalink Filmowy.
A Proustian theme – searching for the lost time or an impossible journey into the past – constitutes the essence of Iwaszkiewicz’s story and Wajda’s film. (…) Wiktor’s sojourn at Wilko, in a symbolic sense, is a description of a fight between Thanatos and Eros for the hero’s soul. (…) The women know something which Wiktor does not know and will never know to the end.(…) The sisterly community, the mutual understanding and bonds which unite the maids of Wilko, give them strength and a sense of balance in life; a form of rootedness which Wiktor is lacking. (…) At the same time they all share a longing for love (…) The nostalgia emanating from the images of the lost world has a strong esthetic foundation. The narration is but a carrier of this nostalgic aura. The conflict between the women and the man develops in a subdued manner, with no dramatic counterpoints involved. The struggle of Thanatos and Eros remains unresolved.
When the film made the trans-Atlantic leap, premiering stateside at the New York Film Festival, Vincent Canby gave a slightly less effusive take on the film, merely calling it “one of the wisest, most civilized comedies in a long time:”
Mr. Wajda, after making a brilliant splash here in the late 1950’s and 60’s with “Generation,” “Kanal” and “Ashes and Diamonds,” has recently not received the attention he deserves… Among other things, Mr. Wajda is terrifically good with actors. Two of the best performances you’re likely to see this year are those of Mr. Olbrychski (who had the lead in Mr. Wajda’s elegant “Landscape After Battle”) as Wiktor in “Wilko” and of Zbigniew Zapasiewicz in “Without Anesthesia.” (Mr. Zapasiewicz also appears in “Wilko” as the estate manager.) In addition, “The Young Girls of Wilko” features a string of superlative performances by the actresses who play the unlucky sisters, especially the one by Christine Pascal, the French actress, as the beautiful Tunia.
Though “The Young Girls of Wilko” is a dark comedy about a man who, in the description of one of the sisters, appears to have wilted, it leaves one feeling invigorated, almost like new. Such are the astonishments of art.
Almost 20 years later, Dan Schneider, reviewing the DVD of the film at Cosmoetica, took exception to Canby calling it a “dark comedy:”
Believe me, there is no comedy in this film. Not that it’s dour, but Canby was way off the mark, not only in reiterating many of the misassessments I’ve pointed out, but even in his take on Wiktor:
Though in his late 30’s, Wiktor (Daniel Olbrychski) is still a handsome man. He’s trim, fair-haired and has the heavily lidded eyes that often suggest he has mysterious longings when he’s really nothing more than bored, detached from the immediate scene….which even he is beginning to suspect is a certain emptiness….
One need only watch the first five minutes of the film to see that, of all the possible ills Wiktor suffers from, emptiness and boredom are not among them. And while Maids Of Wilko is not a dark comedy, Wiktor Ruben is a character who would have been right at home in the dark comedies from Woody Allen’s Golden Age, like Stardust Memories, Hannah And Her Sisters, or Crimes And Misdemeanors.
Everything in Maids Of Wilko has import, if not to a character than to the viewer, and that is a rarity. The film is complex without being overly complicated. It plays out like a Brontë or Dickens novel with more depth.
The Green Integer blog largely agreed with Schneider’s take, while offering its own lengthy, sober analysis of the film, titled “Where Sheep Eat Wolves.” You’ll find no gushing here (though there’s mention that the film was watched on Valentine’s Day).
Whether in a sentimental or serious vein, the reactions of critics have been demonstrably taken by the film over the years. What will your reaction be? Watch it to find out, and share with us in a review or comment!