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Krzysztof Warlikowski in images from the cinema and its ghosts

A look at Iphigenia in Tauris — By Jo Fishley

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Iphegenia in Tauris by Gluck returns to Paris under the baton of Bertrand de Billy. Adapted from Guymond de La Touche and Euripides, this domestic tragedy has a contemporary resonance as Iphigenia, condemned to kill her brother Orestes, who is himself a murderer, plunges into a highly cinematic, labyrinthine nightmare.    

“All films are dreams, some of them more than others”. The troubled nights of David Lynch’s cinema are like Krzysztof Warlikowski’s dark evenings of the theatre. His works are played out in similarly dreamlike, phantasmagorical depths in order to portray an enlightened vision of the world, a dream both outraged and pessimistic, a clear-eyed gaze at the dark night of the human condition and the loss of innocence. A disquieting strangeness casts its shadow like the obscure threat of the imminent manifestation of some hidden, mysterious and inexplicable reality. The Iphigenia in his production, a frail, aeging diva and a recluse in a nursing home – a tiled universe of hard, rigid, clinical austerity, is like Lynch’s Diane in Mulholland Drive: emerging from an impossible reality and from her own macabre farce, she dreams, living through her reminiscences: the introspective mulling over her existence and the resurfacing of forgotten memories. The vestiges of what is absent, memories of the past are at the heart of this contemporary narrative of an Iphigenia tortured, vacillating and confused. The lost time returns in flashbacks. Doors open and close on a vertiginous fiction that doubtless leads nowhere other than to an existential impasse.

© Franck Ferville / OnP
In the broken mirror of appearances and illusions, film-maker Lynch and director Warlikowski succeed in throwing into relief the folly of men, their deceptively smooth-faced monstrosity. Horror is never far away in the dreams and nightmares of Lynch’s cinema with its labyrinthine scenarios fashioned according to a mental labyrinth in territory in which normality mutates into something bizarre and disturbing. Within the darkness of theatre and cinema, Lynch and Warlikowski depict a tragic modernity that explores the questions of life and death. We are brought face to face with what we are, in perpetual construction and deconstruction. On the stage, on the screen, we recognise ourselves; we are the characters, our doubles. Mirrors descend onto the stage of Iphigenia in Tauris, reflecting the stage and the auditorium. In these mirrors, Warlikowski does not leave the spectator in solitude, but brings him face to face with himself, eye to eye with the reflection of his own image, the revelation of his omnipresence. We watch images that watch us. We live with phantoms and their otherness, like the duality of an Iphigenia both young and old, co-existing with her on the stage – the realm of her likeness.  
L’Affaire Makropoulos, Opéra Bastille, 2013
L’Affaire Makropoulos, Opéra Bastille, 2013 © Mirco Maggliocca / OnP

Sombre and disturbing, Krzysztof Warlikowski submits theatre to cinema and its spectres. Eternal old women wander through the hospice in which his Iphigenia, the survivor of a domestic nightmare, is dying; they advance like dumb zombies, the living dead. Phantoms always return. Here they are invoked in the form of a mute chorus of young women brought back from his Triumph of Time and Truth, an early oratorio by Handel, and which he staged in a set resembling a cinema auditorium, the seats of which also featured in the scenography of The Macropoulos Case.

The Polish director fills his theatre with images, displacing the narrative to a sort of annexe opening onto the spaces of the mind, a rhizome-like internal labyrinth of multiple dimensions. In the nocturnal huis clos of Iphigenia’s nursing home, which could just as easily be a psychiatric hospital for the senile and decadent, videos project images of the bloody tragedy. It is not a film as such, but the images are in the tradition of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s formally syncretic work. He assembles, joins, cuts, quotes and extracts in the form of a collage as if editing a film or a narrative. He borrows, juxtaposes and builds bridges to create a hybrid, a poetic translation. He alters and recreates.    

Barbara Hannigan (Elle), La Voix Humaine, Palais Garnier, 2015
Barbara Hannigan (Elle), La Voix Humaine, Palais Garnier, 2015 © Bernd Uhlig / OnP

Krzysztof Warlikowski is not simply a director under the influence of David Lynch, even as regards his stylisation and his aesthetic, which evoke a pictorial heritage drawn from the work of Hopper and Bacon. He is not so far removed from Bergman in his combination of oneirism, lyricism and symbolism. Film culture plays an active role in his protean approach and his productions regularly include extracts from films: in Cabaret de Varsovie, John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus; in Parsifal, Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero; in The Triumph of Time and Truth, an extract from the film Ghost Dance by Ken McMullen; sequences from L’Année dernière à Marienbad by Resnais as a prelude to Die Frau ohne Schatten.

In Warlikowski’s theatre, an eccentric movement entirely displaces both narrative and perception. But why the devil has he been pigeonholed? Enfant terrible? Provocateur? Experimentalist? The creator creates, and Warlikoswki cannot be contained within such limitative clichés.    

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