As a teenager, I fell in love with “Le Moulin de la Galette,” a Renoir painting of a lively gathering of young couples partying at an open-air dance hall in then still rural Montmartre. I hung a copy over my bed, and I think I sometimes felt (or wished) that I was part of that delightfully light-hearted scene.
I was reminded of that sensation by “The Mill and the Cross,” a film by the internationally-acclaimed Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski whose extraordinary achievement transports the viewer into the landscape of Pieter Bruegel’s Flemish masterpiece and into the lives of a dozen of some 500 characters who people the canvas. I call this achievement extraordinary because the painting depicts the Passion of Christ set in Bruegel’s contemporary Flanders in 1564 —a period when this bucolic countryside was occupied by Spanish soldiers charged by the Inquisition to brutally repress the growing Protestant movement in the Low Countries.
You’d think it might be difficult to picture yourself in such a setting at a period of history so far removed from our own. But Majewski’s film—inspired by an analysis of the work by author, art critic and scholar Michael Francis Gibson—both creates and recreates the painting so hypnotically that we become part of the creative process as the events unfold around us. We are, if you’ll pardon the pun, drawn into the canvas.
Gibson co-wrote the mostly narrated screenplay with Majewski, who directed, produced, and with Adam Sikora, served as co-director of photography. Works of art have been important elements of Majewski’s previous films, such as “Basquiat,” for which he wrote the screenplay, and “The Garden of Earthly Delights” which uses the Bosch painting as background. “The Mill and The Cross” had its world premiere at Sundance, and its New York opening on Sept. 14 was celebrated with a reception at the Polish Embassy in Manhattan. The original painting hangs in Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum.
While there is virtually no dialogue in the movie, the painting speaks in voiceover narratives by its three principal characters—Bruegel, played by Rutger Hauer; his royal patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York); and a mother-figure who stands in for The Virgin Mary, played by Charlotte Rampling. The landscape, however, speaks for itself, with bleating animals, the clomping of horses’ hooves, creaking doors and buzzing insects.
In its absence of dialogue and use of computer graphics, “The Mill” can be compared to Terrence Malick’s most recent—and controversial—film, “The Tree of Life.” Unlike Malick’s offering, however, we don’t have to guess what the characters mean. And where Malick forces his artistic vision of a computer-generated creation on the audience, Majewski treats us to Bruegel’s artistic vision of history enhanced by computer graphics.
As an artist goes from concept to sketches, from drawings to palette, Majewski follows Bruegel from sketch-pad to canvas. Regarded as a consummate video artist, he uses his visual tools to build layers of experience, tracing some characters from their waking moments to their painted destiny. We witness the morning rituals of the townspeople, a woman dressing, children playing, a couple making love, another engaged in a bawdy flirtation. We enter the forest with the woodcutters, who will choose the tree to fell for the lumber that will eventually become the crucifix. We watch as the red-jacketed soldiers dismount to bind a heretic to a wagon wheel raised atop a stake taller than a telephone pole, where birds can pick at his rotting flesh. We awaken with the family of the miller, whose mill occupies the finished painting’s background—its multi-level staircase just visible in perspective. Earlier on the day of the painting, we saw the mill hand climb those very same stairs to reach the top in order to get the sails going.