BIRD TALK. Perverse Genius

Thematically, Bird Talk is a collage of unabashed truisms, literary and cinematic inspirations, and reflections on the contemporary world and art.

Tomasz Raczkowski

30 August 2023

History is a circle that keeps rolling. In 1971, a young director named Andrzej Żuławski made his debut with the film The Third Part of the Night, set during the nightmare of World War II. The film was based on a screenplay prepared by the director’s father, Mirosław. Transformed fundamentally by Andrzej, the story of wartime experiences became a manifestation of Żuławski’s distinct style and a strong opening to his controversial body of work. In 2019, three years after his death, Żuławski’s filmography was concluded with “Bird Talk,” a film created by his son, Xawery, based on an unrealized script by the director. This conclusion is spectacular.

In Bird Talk, the opening scene features Andrzej Żuławski’s narration about the experiences that shaped his debut – the suffering and chaos his family endured in wartime Lviv. These words are accompanied by visual juxtapositions – reflections of Xawery and Andrzej Żuławski’s faces merging in a window, establishing a connection to their artistic identity expressed in the film. The third face belongs to Sebastian Fabijański, who plays the main role. His casting as the protagonist of Bird Talk brings to mind the decision to cast Leszek Teleszyński in the lead role of Andrzej’s first two films. Fabijański, with his slightly long hair and beard, strongly resembles Xawery’s appearance, who in turn resembles a thirty-something version of his father. “Bird Talk” is a film that can be signed with just one name – Żuławski. The central character portrayed by Fabijański, Marian, is the alter ego of both creators. In Bird Talk, they craft a radical magnum opus under the brand “Żuławski.”

Xawery Żuławski reflects his father’s artistic style and madness, immersing his own postmodernistic pastiche and grotesque into it. The result is a tangle of characters, plots, intertextual references, and self-referential commentary. Instead of a conventionally structured plot, the Żuławski duo presents the titular “bird talk” – a polyphonic chaos, a series of inexplicably interconnected events. The film opens with a eruption of school violence during a history lesson, followed by glimpses into the lives of intellectuals with unfulfilled ambitions, visits to the residences of arrogant nouveau riche, “Żyleta” in Warsaw, a psychiatric hospital, a nationalist march, and a suburban villa. We observe characters entangled in dangerous situations, the sick, those engaged in affairs, and those provoking others. This cacophonic procession of events is loosely bound by the character of Marian, an erudite misanthrope who loses his job and contemplates the role of demiurge in this strange reality.

The film is divided into several episodes named after the recurring figures in the film – historian, writer, orphan, etc. However, despite this structure, Bird Talk does not form a clear collection of character sketches. There is barely a traditionally constructed narrative. What is clearly visible is a dense mesh of rapid, pretentious, and incoherent scenes played in a characteristic “Żuławski style” of exaggerated emotions, over-the-top acting, as well as shaky smartphone footage, accompanied by a distinctive soundtrack by Andrzej Korzyński, Żuławski’s regular composer. A-list actors (such as Daniel Olbrychski and Andrzej Chyra) share the screen with celebrities and YouTubers. The film incorporates documentary shots, film references, paraphrases, and genuine mementos from Andrzej Żuławski. The result is an opaque tangle of exaggerated characters, twisted plotlines, and self-reference.

Thematically, Bird Talk is a collage of unabashed truisms, literary and cinematic inspirations, and reflections on the contemporary world and art. It covers a wide range of topics – nationalism, anti-Semitism, class issues, violence, perversion, the Warsaw Uprising, communism, the events of December ’70, Mickiewicz, Tolstoy, Proust, Niemen, Żuławski, Żuławski, Żuławski… What’s most insane is that this seemingly haphazard approach surprisingly coalesces into a frenzied vision of a hyper-saturated world, a diseased tangle of history, ego-centricities, art, and pop culture. Żuławski dissects the belly of contemporary Poland and for over two hours delves into its inner workings, creating a perversely grotesque commentary on reality. Through hyper-identification, he weaves an absurd amalgamation of intellectual and entertainment-driven cacophony, an experience we encounter daily. The paradox of this poetics is best seen in Fabijański’s role – his over-the-top performance is even more artificial and irritating than Teleszyński and Bogusław Linda once were, yet equally demonically suggestive as Isabelle Adjani or Klaus Kinski. From Żuławski’s madness, no method emerges, and this absence is the best aesthetic tool that Bird Talk employs.

Therefore, this review will not be accompanied by a numerical rating. Each such score would be appropriate. I refuse to give Bird Talk a numerical rating just as it refuses to conform to any analytical or perceptual framework. It radically opposes artistic convention and discipline. The Żuławski film sinks into its own expression, reaching a level of absurdity and cinematic departure perhaps unparalleled since Un Chien Andalou. No one makes cinema like this, because this is not how cinema is made. Bird Talk isn’t even a film – it’s Andrzej Żuławski’s brain splattered on the screen after a self-inflicted gunshot. So extreme that it’s funny, terrifying, deranged, dreadful, and brilliant all at once. Many people will genuinely hate and reject Bird Talk. And they’ll be right. But some – like me – will be stunned and enraptured by the film in the most extreme way. To call it madness, a departure, is an understatement. It’s perverse genius.

Tomasz Raczkowski

Tomasz Raczkowski

Anthropologist, critic, enthusiast of social cinema, British humor and horror films.

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