It turned out to be a perfect adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story and one of the most beautiful works of Polish animation. Its original, sublime artwork, combined with the richness of the characters’ inner experiences in the shots and the drama in the film, create a work that remains in viewers’ memories for a long time. In the animation, which only runs for eleven minutes, Piotr Dumała managed to show the psychological nuances of the relationship between a young woman and her older husband from the pages of the great Russian writer’s excellent short story, as well as convey the atmosphere and spirit of his works. The drama of the characters created by Dostoyevsky has been transposed into the language of the film in an extremely concise yet expressive and poignant manner, building the narrative with only painterly frames without words to accompany them. Only a few sentences, expressed in a muffled, male voice, are spoken before the first shot. The next part is the narrator’s internal monologue, recorded as a sequence of images.
In the dark frames, the present blends with the past in a very artistic and suggestive manner. The ‘here and now’, as in Dostoyevsky’s original, boils down to the man’s vigil at his wife’s side. The darkness in the room does not allow one to see the face of the hollow figure sitting on the chair – the light penetrating the obscured window falls on the woman’s corpse, shining on her face, her long dress, her bare feet. The deafening silence of this dark scene is only interrupted by the ticking of a magnificent clock which stands next to one of the walls. Its hands, as if in sync with the man’s thoughts, move in the opposite direction to normal, running towards the past, the understanding of which, however, will no longer be able to change anything in the characters’ relationship. The golden-brown dial of the clock becomes a vehicle through time and the driving force behind the story of the past of these two, starting from the moment they meet, as in Dostoyevsky’s original – a poor, young girl and a much older man who actually ‘buys’ his wife. The crimson dress worn by the woman when she meets the man leaves traces of red – however, the colour does not symbolise love here but instead foreshadows upcoming events.
The memories, interrupted for a moment by the ticking of the clock and the buzzing of a fly, return with a vengeance. In the vivid pictures, the past pours into the walls of the apartment where they lived together.
Its stuffy interior, a witness to the husband’s cruel conduct, once again surrounds the heroine. The girl’s red or, at other times, light dress is cut off in the frame from the dark background, reminiscent of the vitality and joy of life gradually suffocated by the despotic, dry and jealous husband. The brown and black depressing tones of the images reflect the atmosphere of the drama set between the four walls, which have become a prison for the young woman.
The tragic nature of this relationship and the gap dividing the spouses was shown in clear, often symbolic images. These include shots in which the table shared by the wife and husband begins to change shapes after a scene filled with tension, expanding and thus showing their increasing distance. The presence of a spider is also symbolic – as the relationship degenerates, it grows to a monstrous size, and in the culminating scene, it emerges from under the table, knocking it over. The presence of the unnaturally large, revolting animal, combined with the atmosphere of the heroine’s entrapment permeating the scene and the perfectly rendered loneliness and defencelessness which she suffers, saturate Dumała’s animation with an almost Kafkaesque ambience. In the painterly frames of the artist’s film, one can also find references to great masters of the brush – in one of the scenes the woman’s face freezes in a grimace of terror, as dramatic as the one seen in Munch’s famous The Scream.
The narrator’s story shown in the flashbacks is accompanied by the muted and discreet yet painfully expressive music of Zygmunt Konieczny, while the scenes in which the husband rests by his wife’s corpse’s side are frozen in silence. Dumała’s power also lies in techniques borrowed from live-action films – juxtaposing different sets, using close-ups and dynamic editing. We can observe masterful metamorphoses of objects which undergo change with uncanny smoothness – for example, the table, which takes on the shape of the woman’s bed of sorrow in the instant after she pulls off the tablecloth. The interpenetrating images with a painterly, rich texture are the result of the director’s extremely original animation technique which uses black-painted plasterboards (Dumała invented it himself). The extremely labour-intensive method of extracting a picture from a dark background, repeatedly covered with paint and newly engraved on the board with the help of a stylus, provided Dumała with a unique style.
The impressive artwork, imbued with the director’s original style, the beauty of the frames with which he conveyed the nuances of the dramatic relationship, combined with Konieczny’s subtly expressive music, all combine into a masterpiece carved in plaster. Through this interpretation of the classic text, the artist managed to revive the 19th-century novel, turning it into a universal story about loneliness in a relationship, the destructive power of violence and the tragic irreversibility of death.
A Gentle Spirit (original title: Łagodna), Poland, 1985. Screenplay, director, artwork: Piotr Dumała, music: Zygmunt Konieczny, animation: Piotr Dumała, Wojciech Wojtkowski, cinematography: Barbara Stankiewicz, production: Studio Miniatur Filmowych in Warsaw. Runtime: 11 minutes.
- Bronze Lajkonik in the animated film category, Kraków Film Festival – National Competition, Kraków 1985;
- Golden Dragon, Kraków Film Festival – International Competition, Kraków 1985;
- Award of the Chairman of the Cinematography Committee for Animated Film, 1985;
- Golden Ducat, International Film Festival, Mannheim 1985;
- Silver Dancer, 1st prize in the animated film category, International Short Film Festival, Huesca 1985;
- Special Award, International Animated Film Festival, Hamilton, 1986;
- First Prize, Polish National Competition for Animated Film, Kraków 1986;
- Stanisław Wyspiański Award of the first degree, Lubuskie Lato Filmowe, Łagów 1986;
- Award, Animafilm Animated Film Festival, Zamość 1987.
Originally written in Polish by Iwona Hałgas, June 2011