The Painted Bird at LFF: a pretty slice of empty neo-exploitation

A prominent UK-based critic gave The Painted Bird a 5* review during the Venice film festival. The main thesis of his review was that the film provided a traumatising glimpse into the depths of hell (or something to that effect). But what’s most interesting is the way in which it catalogued the atmosphere in the press screening – a description that has gone on to be written about in a number of other newspapers and websites.

The review – and some other reviews that followed – would have you believe that the press screening of The Painted Bird was post-apocalyptic mayhem. It would have you believe that people were stumbling over each other to leave a film that was so explicit – so provocative – that the film press couldn’t physically handle it.  It would have you believe that The Painted Bird is so distressing that it should warrant some sort of a health warning. This, dear reader, is a load of bullshit. The reason why the Sala Darsena was ¾ empty by the end of the screening wasn’t that the audience was shocked senseless, but because they were bored out of their wits.

A rather aimless, emotionally inert 3-hour riff on Come and See (I almost laughed out loud when Alexey Kravchenko appeared onscreen), Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s novel is so intent on shoving exploitation-violence into the screen at every conceivable moment that it forgets to make us actually sympathise with any of its characters, or to make any of its violence… you know… actually shocking.

This is a piece that begins with an animal being set on fire and rolling around in the dirt screeching until it perishes, almost immediately segues into a young boy burning down his house with his grandmother inside, before transitioning instantly to said boy having his head and face viciously pecked by crows and then showing us Udo Kier raping and abusing a woman before gouging someone’s eyes out with a spoon. Shortly after, for no apparent reason, we see a glass bottle kicked inside a woman’s vagina as she screams for mercy.

This all occurs in roughly the first hour of the film, and much more happens beside that. Because of the structure of the piece, we don’t really care about any of the characters and the constant parade of violence means that it’s appearance hardly ever comes as a shock. There’s also a sort of corny, 70’s no-budget mondo feel to the whole thing that makes it feel rather unrealistic, further lessening the impact of these horrors. Having seen Noe’s Irriversible: Inversion Integrale earlier in the week, trust me, The Painted Bird is nothing. The walkouts seem mainly to do with the fact that it was quite late in the festival, this thing is three hours long, and by an hour in you can tell that nothing more is going to happen than what you’ve seen already.

The film follows a young boy (Petr Kotlar) in Second World War Eastern Europe as he travels from town to town after becoming homeless, facing various trials and tribulations as a Jewish child and occasionally coming into contact with Nazi forces – the threat of the concentration camps looms large over the piece. Split into 9 separate chapters, although that should probably be 10, The Painted Bird is basically an analogy of 15-30-minute short stories chronicling the troubles and experiences our protagonist has with separate families and communities throughout the country.

There’s a bizzarely prolific cast stuck into the corners of this odd film – Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, and Stellan Skarsgård all make brief appearances (the latter especially so) in minor roles, which brings some intrigue to the proceedings. Kier, especially, plays an absolutely vintage character – an embodiment of pure psychotic evil who claims the best, most surreal moment of the film (of course he does), which involves two cats fucking (of course it does).

Aside from the fact that all this is rather silly and exploitative and painfully melodramatic, not to mention eliciting precisely no feeling whatsoever, I actually thought The Painted Bird was rather good. It’s a three-hour film – which is a punishing length – that’s truly epic in scope and features enough outlandish mayhem to keep a reasonably alert viewer entertained throughout.

Indeed, it has to be the odyssey – the punishing journey – one comes for with The Painted Bird, because any assertion of thematic depth or relevance feels at best forced and at worst insensitive. The film seems to take a masochistic, sensationalistic pleasure in exhibiting torture and atrocity, displaying a willingness to shock and titillate that should be kept separate from meaningful films about the holocaust.

What’s more, the whole thing looks absolutely gorgeous in 35mm black and white, lensed by Vladimir Smutny. Playing more like a lightly Lynchian absurdist horror than a serious war drama (very few of the things that happen in this film, you’ve probably already realised, would fit into a slice of kitchen sink realism), the stark, high-contrast monochrome often scans more as a painting than a photographic print.

Overall, it’s hard not to question Marhoul’s motivations in creating The Painted Bird, and you should certainly ignore the critics who have proclaimed that it’s some sort of extreme, distressing ordeal that can only be survived by a select few, but as epics go this one is kind of perversely watchable. Beautiful to look at – so much so that it’s impossible to give the film a poor rating – and totally enveloping as a starkly monochrome moodscape with some surprising guest features.


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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