Ms. Holland Goes 19th C

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND director of film Washington Square

Don't go looking for Europa, Europa II, folks. Filmmaker Agnieszka Holland is about the last person on the planet who would ever make a sequel. "I'd never do two movies that looked alike," swears the Polish-born writer-director, recently in town to discuss her new adaptation of Henry James's Washington Square.

Holland swears that every film she makes has "a different energy, a different dramaturgic dynamic," but an overview of Holland's work shows that almost every film is of a different genre, even a different "language."

Most famous for Europa, Europa, an almost-unclassifiable German historical drama-cum-comic-childhood-memoir, Holland has also directed films ranging from Olivier, Olivier, a French psychological thriller, to Fever, a pro-revolutionary Polish drama, and even found time for the 1994 English-language children's movie The Secret Garden.

Washington Square is Holland's first move into Penguin Classics territory, but the film bears important similarities to her previous efforts. "I have one question that's really come back to me," says Holland. "The question of identity, the question of who we are: if we have a sense of an inner truth that is unchangeable, or if we exist only through the eyes and expectations of other people."

Washington Square centers around Catherine Sloper, a young woman whose individual identity is constantly undermined by her relations to the men around her. Her father sees in Catherine the ghost of his wife, who died in childbirth, and thus continually perceives her as a disappointment, a symbol of his own loss. "At the beginning of the film," says Holland, "Catherine seems 'stupid' because the father and the aunt see her that way."


Holland and star Jennifer Jason Leigh were both sympathetic to how Catherine gets caught between her father and her suitor Morris Townsend, an ambitious clerk who loves Catherine for her family's wealth. "We wanted to play the tragedy, the admiration and the jealousy between these two men."

At the same time, says Holland, she wanted to emphasize the stronger, surer Catherine that emerges at the end of the film. "She wakes up with a kind of independent feeling," says the director. Driven to make her own living away from both men, "she becomes a full person, becomes herself."

But is that the same Catherine that Henry James had in mind? Holland, a writer in her own right--an Oscar nominee for writing Europa, Europa, she also authored the screenplay that became Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue--is sensitive to the special demands of adapting existing material to the screen.

"I'm freer in some way when I'm doing my own script," she says, "because I can change it constantly without asking anybody. With somebody else's work, especially a classic novel, I feel a responsibility to respect the material."

Not that this "responsibility" demands a complete fidelity to the source novel. Holland's characteristic quirks and odd-ball sense of humor--in Europa Europa, she made a character's foreskin a consistent source of laughs--resist any firm allegiance to an inherited script. "For me it is more playful to make somebody else's material," she affirms; it allows her to "concentrate on the interpretation more [than] having to create everything from scratch."

So how does Holland stand on Jane Campion's controversial rendering of James's The Portrait of a Lady? That film was spurned by audiences and many critics for reimagining the novel's entrapped ingenue into an emotional masochist looking for trouble. "I think the criticism of Jane and Portrait came because people didn't like the film," says Holland. "If the film had been more effective for them, they would not have nitpicked about the approach."

At the same time, Holland acknowledges that "my situation was much easier, because Washington Square is one of the easiest of James's novels." Because "the plot is very, very simple," her source material could withstand a more conservative adaptation than could the more intricate and interior Portrait undertaken by Campion.

Moreover, Holland's reputation as the one-woman United Nations of modern filmmakers gave her a sizable advantage in tackling James, one of our most famously wordy scribes. "In some ways, the dialogue became less important when I began to work in different languages. I can change the dialogue and it doesn't change how I'm going to say what I'm going to say."

One thing that Holland feels cannot change if she is to generate good product is her insistence on maintaining agency over the way her film develops. She seeks out Polish-speaking cinematographers (some of the best in the business anyway) because she can converse most fluently not only about shots but about "the general meaning of the story, the acting and everything."

More to the point, Holland is fiercely protective of her independence as an artist, citing how many maverick filmmakers "make one interesting movie, and then the next thing they do is some thriller made for profit." Holland did not, however, buy into the notion of a "revived" independent cinema that dovetailed with the success of The English Patient, Secrets & Lies and other non-Hollywood pictures late last year. Again, her multicultural background clearly affords her a unique perspective:

"You know, it's always been an independent cinema in Europe. Practically 80 or 90 percent of what was made was independent, so I don't think that it's better today than it was a couple of years ago."

Holland does acknowledge a few consistent sources of inspiration in contemporary cinema--Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Gus Van Sant, and "in Europe, just tons of them"--but the voice she is most interested in following is her own.

"I'm not doing the films to have the critical success, which is very nice if it happens, but I cannot have it in mind [while I work]. I try to tell the stories which are interesting, appealing, important, and which I have to tell." The next story she has to tell may carry Holland as far afield as Canada, Poland, India, and France--"except," she chuckles, "I don't have the money." No telling what kind of story could bridge all of these locales, but no one has ever said that Agnieszka Holland isn't ambitious

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