Enter a teeming Bruegel painting in audacious, exciting ‘Mill and the Cross’
I don’t know much about Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, but he’s made one wild, weird-ass movie about art and the artmaking process in The Mill and the Cross. It’s a fairly awful title for such an edgy experiment. Yes, a mill and a cross figure prominently in the painting under construction in the film, but this title not only makes the film sound dull and plodding, it suggests none of the originality and sheer visual audacity that makes this movie so exciting.
In general, it’s about the 16th Century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, caught in the act of creating his vast masterwork, “The Way To Calvary,” in 1564. Majewski’s film is inspired by a non-fiction book on the subject by art historian Michael Francis Gibson, but Majewski’s approach is completely unconventional. We never see the artist actually painting; instead, Majewski creates an onscreen landscape that already looks like Bruegel’s painting, especially the background, with its sky full of roiling clouds and the distant hills.
The foreground is occupied by the local peasants that Bruegel always painted with such gusto going about their daily business. Bruegel himself (played by the iconic Rutger Hauer) trudges about in the extreme foreground, deciding how he will marshal these people for allegorical purposes within his composition. He shares these ideas with the audience, sometimes in private voice-over contemplation, at other times in conversation with his wealthy patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). Now and then, the busy activity onscreen stops dead in its tracks while Bruegel and Jonghelinck prowl around on the outskirts, discussing the various images and what they mean.
But this is in no way a dry history lesson or art critique. And forget about narrative: Majewski isn’t interested in telling a linear story. Instead, life sprawls across his cinematic canvas in all its messy, teeming, tragi-comic, absurd humanity. Lovers copulate, laborers, carters, peddlers, and sawyers go about their business, a trio of fools dance in the street to the piping of a plaintive horn. And never far off, a troop of scarlet-coated horsemen come thundering deeper and deeper into the heart of the action. These are brutal Spanish mercenaries employed by the King of Spain (who, at this time, also governs Flanders), sent to root out “heretics,” torture, imprison and crucify them, or leave them gibbeted on poles for crows to pick at. A weathered miller looks down on it all from his millhouse perched high on a craggy hill, as his windmill blades slowly churn, and the massive gears grind away.
But as visually striking as it is to see the details of the painting come to such vibrant, breathing life, this is also a film of compelling ideas. Christian images serve as allegory for modern politics, including the grieving mother (Charlotte Rampling) of a murdered heretic who becomes Bruegel’s Mary. (Her feeling are also conveyed in interior monologue, although one look at the imposing dignity of Rampling’s face tells all.) Bruegel takes inspiration from the spider, beginning with the tiny, critical heart of his construction, then expanding outward to draw in all the other elements, including—as was also true in his “Fall of Icarus,” he notes—what passers-by (and the viewer) fail or choose not to notice about the drama playing out in their midst.
Poring over his detailed sketches, Bruegel explains that the miller, high on his hill, represents God in his painting, “the Great Miller of Life.” In Majewski’s view, the painter himself (and by extension, the filmmaker) is also a godlike figure, grinding the raw grain of life and human activity into art. This is certainly true of auteur Majewski himself (who also produced the film and acts as chief cinematographer and music coordinator); recurring shots of enormous wooden gears and cogs grinding away inside the millhouse are like the artist’s imagination, set to work by the full sails of inspiration.
And just when this raw material of life reaches its crescendo onscreen, Majewski pulls back to show the painting itself in a heavy frame today, roped off and confined in a sterile, silent museum. It’s as harrowing a shot as any torture scene, and a powerful coda to this singular, questing, radical art film.
THE MILL AND THE CROSS
★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Rutger Hauer, Michael York, and Charlotte Rampling. Written by Lech Majewski and Michael Francis Gibson. Directed by Lech Majewski. A Koch Lorber Films release. Not rated. 92 minutes.