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THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM
DVD. Mr Bongo Films.

The Hourglass SanatoriumMade eight years after his masterpiece The Saragossa Manuscript, director Wojciech J. Has here comes up with another film that blurs reality and time, but does so in a much more extravagant way. The result is a film that is less about narrative coherence and more a series of bizarre, quirky events. It’s also a work of extraordinary visual flair.

The story, for what it is worth, sees Josef (Jan Nowicki) visiting his dying father at a crumbling, ridiculously vast sanatorium in the polish countryside. Leaving the train (manned by a blind conductor and seemingly populated by lost souls), he makes his way through the ravaged countryside and finally arrives at the gothic building, where the doctor tells him that his father is dead – at least in the outside world. Here, time is reclaimed, and his father remains alive – for now. Soon, Josef too is moving through time and seemingly space, as he follows a young boy out of the building and finds himself experiencing a series of surreal encounters and experiences with people he knew, places he had been. Like Alice in Wonderland, he seems trapped in a spiral where every encounter only leads to more confusion.

The viewer too will find this confusing, especially if you try to make sense of it – in fact, doing that would be foolish. This is more an experience than a coherent film, and it’s best to simply join Josef in his increasingly confused, strange world. Because of that, it’s certainly not for everyone – if you’re the sort of person who frets over plot holes in movies, you’ll certainly hate this. But that would be your loss, because there is a lot to admire in this film.

The Hourglass SanatoriumThis is, without question, one of the most visually impressive movies I’ve ever seen (and is here presented in a gorgeous restored edition). Not only does every shot look like a gorgeous, carefully composed set-piece, but the film manages to move though time and place seamlessly, giving a dream-like fluidity to the events, which could have easily been jarring. Sets, costumes, lighting and camerawork are all remarkable. Nowicki is one-dimensional enough to act as a conduit between events – ironically, a more charismatic actor couldn’t hold a film like this together. And the combination of horror (the opening scenes in the sanatorium are genuinely creepy, with an atmospheric score by Jerzy Maksymiuk that is that match of any horror soundtrack), childlike innocence and Fellini-esque eroticism makes for quite a potent visual brew.

Admittedly, the film eventually feels rather slight – the recreation of the pre-war Jewish ghetto might ground the film in a regretful nostalgia for Polish viewers of a certain age, but for others it might just feel like another part of the cacophony of events driving the film. But there is substance here; it’s just not narrative substance. That’s not a bad thing.

Fans of Terry Gilliam’s more unfettered flights of fancy or the works of Jan Svankmajer will feel at home here, as will admirers of Bunuel and freewheeling European arthouse cinema. Michael Bay fans, less so. Choose your side now!

DAVID FLINT

BUY IT NOW (UK)


 

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