Back in the Habit: Pawel Pawlikowski on Ida

Ida marks Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski's return to his home nation and his return to form. The My Summer of Love director speaks to us about Ida's surprise success and how making it allowed him to escape the boredom of cinema

Feature by Philip Concannon | 08 Sep 2014
  • Ida

A year has passed since Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida was first unveiled for festival audiences, and in the course of that year it has quickly become one of the most awarded and critically acclaimed pictures on the circuit. This minimalist 1960s-set drama about a young nun exploring her past while on a road trip with her chain-smoking, sexually liberated aunt has also proven to be an unlikely box-office success, having made over $3.5 million in the United States (more than films like Under the Skin or The Raid 2, despite playing on fewer screens) and it has now been selected as Poland's official entry for next year's Academy Awards.

All of which has come as a major surprise to the film's director. When he was snowbound in rural Poland with an untested lead actress and a director of photography who had never shot a feature before, he was convinced that he was making his most obscure film to date. “We were making a film that was clearly not going to be commercial, although it has turned out to be commercial, strangely enough,” he says. “And because we would have such a limited audience, I just wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it and take risks.” Stung by the hostile reception to his 2011 Paris-set mystery The Woman in the Fifth, Pawlikowski decided to return to his native country to rediscover his passion for filmmaking. “I always assumed that this film could be my last film, and I just didn't want to think that I hadn't done it the way I wanted to do it.”

The resulting picture is not simply a considerable departure from Pawlikowski's own body of work but a film that feels bracingly out of step with the style and fashion of contemporary cinema, and it seems that was one of the prime motivating factors behind his choices here. “It was just a case of being tired of cinema,” he admits. “I'm not talking about commercial films necessarily, but especially middlebrow films, you know; the good ‘quality’ films are the worst. I was tired of all the trickery and devices of cinema – all those close-ups, tracking shots, helicopter shots, beautiful lighting, emoting – and one of the key phrases on the set was ‘God, this feels too much like cinema.’ We would say that if it was over-lit or if the framings didn't feel accidental enough, or whatever. So it was an escapist film in a way, trying to escape my boredom of cinema.” Pawlikowski does concede that it took some time to get everyone on board with his vision, however. “Of course there were murmurings from the financiers: ‘Why can't they emote more? Why can't the camera move? This is going to be a disaster.’ The rushes didn't have a very good reception,” he recalls with a smile.

Ida simultaneously feels like something old and something new. With its static and square black-and-white images, it often resembles a picture made in the early 60s, but Pawlikowski's off-centre framing and the expressive lighting makes every shot feel distinctive, unusual and fresh. I assumed that the film's extraordinary cinematography was the work of a master, perhaps a veteran of the Polish new wave, but nothing could be further from the truth. When his regular DP Ryszard Lenczewski left the production after one day, apparently in disagreement with the direction the film was taking, and his attempts to secure a last-minute replacement came to nought, Pawlikowski was forced to promote his young camera operator Lukasz Zal to the position. “I had no choice other than to go with the guy who was there, and he turned out to be great. Good energy, total courage and he was really excited, and that's all you really need.” In fact, the whole of the production appears to have been blessed by such happy accidents. The heavy snowfall that disrupted the shooting schedule gave Pawlikowski the time he needed to rewrite the whole of the film's second half, and he can also be thankful that his friend and fellow director Malgorzata Szumowska spotted Agata Trzebuchowska in a Warsaw café.

Trzebuchowska is a real discovery. Her soulful screen presence, with her beautiful features accentuated by Zal’s use of light and shadow, is quietly mesmerising, and she charts her character's development throughout the course of the movie in almost imperceptibly subtle but resonant ways. A star is born, we might think, but Pawlikowski suggests that this may be the only time we see this young woman on screen. “She was interested in meeting me because she had seen my films and she liked Last Resort and My Summer of Love, but she has no ambition to be an actress,” he says. “Agata is actually just doing her final exams this week in Warsaw where she's studying philosophy and history of art, so she’s very aware of aesthetics and what they mean and she was interested in the process of filmmaking. I don't think she’s an actress type, though: she doesn't enjoy being the centre of attention, and that’s actually why I chose her, because she doesn't have a histrionic bone in her body and she doesn't need to perform to be alive.” However, Pawlikowski does leave the door ajar for any top European directors who might be reading: “I mean, never say never. If Sorrentino or someone like that called her then I'm sure she'd be interested."

“My films are always the result of where I am, what I’ve discovered and what’s in my head” – Pawel Pawlikowski

As for the director's future plans, they remain very vague. He has a number of projects at various stages of development, one of which is set in Poland and another in England (where he has spent most of his career), and he talks with some passion of a script about Johann Sebastian Bach that he has been working on, but he can't say for sure what his next move will be. “Generally all my films, including my documentaries, act as markers for where I am,” he explains. “I'm not a professional filmmaker, it’s just a little part of my life and it’s not how I define myself. It’s not really important whether I make the film in Poland, England or wherever. The films are always the result of where I am, what I’ve discovered and what’s in my head.”

For now, Pawlikowski is simply enjoying the journey that Ida has taken him on and is trying to come to terms with the film’s unexpected and continuing success. “It’s hard to understand,” he admits. But he thinks he may have pinpointed one reason why the film has struck such a chord with audiences: “I remember seeing a poster for this film in Paris when it came out in February, and they chose a really good poster in Paris, the wide shot of the monastery with the nun walking in the snow, and it really jumped out at you,” he recalls. “All of the colours and movement, and suddenly you had this black-and-white space in the middle of it. I think a lot of people crave the silence, the simplicity, the meditation or whatever the quality is that takes you out of modern culture, just for a moment.”

Ida is released 26 Sep by Curzon Film World