The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky (2001)


director/cinematographer/editor: Paul Cox; screenwriter: based on “Cahiers” by Vaslav Nijinsky; cinematographer: Hans Sonneveld; music: Paul Grabowsky; cast: Derek Jacobi (Voice of Nijinsky), Chris Hayward (Oscar), Vicki Attard, David McCallister, Vicki Attard, Delia Silvan (Lead Dancer, Romola), Hans Sonneveld (Doctor), Kevin Lucas (Diaghilev), Jillian Smith (Emilia), Members of the Australian Ballet, Leigh Warren; Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Annya Whitehead/Paul Cox; Wellspring; 2001-Australia/Netherlands)

“… this unorthodox documentary works for those who have a sensitivity to the artist and to his struggles against such a cold and indifferent world.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A haunting film by Paul Cox about Vaslav Nijinsky. It converges on the fine line there is between madness and an artist consumed with his art. The film is presented solely from Nijinsky’s point of view.

Nijinsky was born in Kiev, Russia, in 1889, while his Polish parents, dancers Eleonora Bereda and Foma Nijinsky, were on tour. He attended the Imperial School in St. Petersburg in 1898, and upon graduation in 1907 became a soloist with the Maryinsky Theatre. Nijinsky moved in the aristocratic society of St. Petersburg. He was introduced to the notorious impresario Sergei Diaghilev by a Polish count at a party, and under the influence of Diaghilev’s strong personality, he soon became his lover and protégé. He lived with Diaghilev for five years and Diaghilev dictated Vaslav’s every move, both on and offstage. He made sure that Nijinsky read the right books, and went to museums, concerts and art galleries. During his vacation Nijinsky went to Paris with his mentor and danced the leading roles in Le Pavillion d’Armida and Les Sylphides with Pavlova in 1909. The next year he danced the golden slave in Schéhérazade. He continued to dance with the Diaghilev Ballet after 1909, although his dancing partner Anna Pavlova left because Diaghilev favored his male dancers. Although Vaslav danced with many great ballerinas he was most associated with Tamara Karsavina, with whom he danced in 1911 in one of the most famous ballets of the time, Le Spectre de la Rose. According to Judith Steeh’s History of Ballet and Modern Dance Nijinsky danced with Isadora Duncan in Paris and she influenced him as both dancer and choreographer. His choreography broke away from his classical training and his ballets became controversial and ahead of its time. In L’Apres-midi d’un Faune the dancers suggested a two-dimensional bas relief, were barefoot and the closing scene simulated masturbation. His Jeux made headlines in the morning press. In his diary he describes his distaste for the hidden homosexuality theme in the two girl lovers that Diaghilev meant to be men. Le Sacre du Printemps had the audiences shouting obscenities in the theater and on the streets of Paris. In 1913 the Ballets Russes toured South America, and because of his fear of ocean voyages Diaghilev did not accompany them. Without his mentor’s supervision Nijinsky fell in love with the Hungarian heiress Romola de Pulszky and he married her in Buenos Aires soon after meeting her in Rio de Janeiro. Their marriage was the reason his Svengali fired him while he was in a jealous rage. During World War I Nijinsky, baptized in Poland but a Russian citizen, was interned in Hungary. Diaghilev succeeded in getting him out for a North American tour in 1916, during which he choreographed and danced the leading role in Till Eulenspiegel. Signs of his dementia praecox were becoming apparent to members of the company. He became afraid of the other dancers and his dancing became like a death watch. In 1917 he fled with his domineering wife Romola and his three year old daughter Kyra to St. Moritz and a Swiss villa owned by her parents to escape his overbearing mentor and his encroaching madness. He considered his new surroundings as his personal Siberia and started his diary called “Cahiers” in January 1919 hours after he danced what was to be for his last time on the stage. He filled the diary with stirring reveries on life, art, philosophy, society, and God. In it he compares himself to God because God’s spirit lives in him and because he loves everyone just like God. He keeps mentioning that he’s not an ordinary man–he’s a dancer and to best understand him is to see him dance. The diary was kept for about seven weeks until he was placed in an insane asylum by his wife. Nijinsky thereafter spent many years in and out of mental hospitals. In 1947 the family moved to London, where he was cared for by his loving wife, Romola, until his death in 1950. He is buried in Paris at the Sacre Coeur cemetery.

In his lifetime there were only photos taken of Vaslav Nijinsky and no movie shots of him dancing, which is most unfortunate that we will never have a record of the great one dancing. The dancer’s peak lasted roughly for a decade and because of his effortless elevation and the combination of his virtuosity with acting and style he’s arguably the greatest and certainly the most celebrated male dancer of the 20th century. Because of limited funds, the filmmaker could not afford to include a re-enactment from one of the dancer’s most famous but lavishly scored works — Igor Stravinsky’s Rites Of Spring. What Dutch-born, Australian-living award-winning director Paul Cox (“Innocence“/”Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh“) does do, is use photos of Nijinsky in costume in deity-like poses and newsreel footage from Nijinsky’s days at the Ballets Russes which are juxtaposed with short dramatizations of his famous stage roles, and these are so effectively introduced into the story by Paul Cox and gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Hans Sonneveldthat they leave a lasting impression. The overall effect of the film is simply so stunning and heartfelt, that I was deeply touched and very moved by it all. The film is a masterpiece–an example of how to make a biography the right way without messing it up with extraneous things and editorials. How much you get out of this film is in how willing you are to go with the flow of it and not resort to questioning things about it that take you away from the spirit of the presentation and the voice of Nijinsky telling you in the clearest way he possibly could what goes on inside his heart. It’s unfair and not wise to take cheap shots at what he’s saying and merely put it down as being naive, as that will only take you down a dark trail and not help you understand Nijinsky–that is, unless you are so cold to him that you don’t really want to see him.

Cox’s prolific film career first got international attention with his 1976 “Illuminations.” All in all he made a total of 39 feature and short films thus far; and, is an admitted admirer of Nijinsky for over 30 years from the time he heard Paul Scofield give a reading of the diary. “Nijinsky” perhaps tells us more about Paul Cox and his heartfelt relationship with his subject and fellow artist in a way only one heroic artist can convey his thoughts and deep respect about another brave artist, and for just doing that alone I heartily applaud this unique work. But, of course, there’s much more done here than that. The film gets to the heart of Nijinsky as the consummate artist and for that I call for shouts of bravo for a filmmaker who is not willing to compromise his film for a pile of Hollywood money and aims only to tell the story as it’s meant to be told in a personal way.

For Cox, Nijinsky is to be cherished for the way he speaks in his memoirs so openly with his heart as few others are able to. It was painful for me to watch the inward suffering the dancer was going through as he fought for his sanity and lucidity in those last weeks of his freedom, and of him innocently concerned with the welfare of mankind and against the ongoing violence in society and of the dance critics who don’t get it but still attack and those who brutally slaughter animals for meat (Nijinsky because of his belief in not killing anyone, remained a vegetarian). By the film’s end it was shown how he was held up on the altar as a sacrificial lamb for his art which is one of the reasons why many dance fans have never let his legend be forgotten, as he seemed to speak to them through his pain and suffering and artistic talent and his great humanitarianism.

Cox’s Nijinsky is an experimental avant-garde documentary more interested in establishing Nijinsky’s thoughts when he was in mental decline and in his fear of being institutionalized than in exploring things outside of what he wrote in his memoirs (for instance, there’s no mention in the diary of his sister even though she was close to him and therefore no mention of her in the film; but the film talks about the love he had for his mother because he mentions her in the diary). Since Nijinsky freely spoke about his fears of going mad, that’s what the film covers in its attempt to keep it true to the dancer’s very own words. This makes for not the usual linear kind of documentary that outlines in detail its subject’s work and examines the subject’s biography in a logical manner. Cox is more interested in showing only what Nijinsky clearly expressed and felt and is buoyed by the fact that his subject has the courage to speak his mind from his heart and not hold back his true feelings in the wake of the tragic circumstances surrounding his life. And, Cox successfully conveys this through use of his strong visuals, the background music of Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy as deftly arranged by Paul Grabowsky, and with the filmmaker’s personal conviction put forth in a subtle manner that art makes one a better human being because it arms one to defend oneself against ignorance and violence. For Cox, someone as talented and as thoughtful as Nijinsky should be a role model for the arts rather than so many others who are only because they falsely assumed that mantle, but who are in reality shallow and misuse the term artist because they are clever enough to know how to prop themselves up through publicity stunts and use their social know-how skills to push ahead of those more deserving of that honor.

The entire film consists of the great actor Derek Jacobi reading with much emotion in his rich voice from the ballet dancer’s diary against a backdrop of impressionistic nature scenes of flying birds and crashing waves and a changing grey sky and mountains and flowers, and by vivid dramatic reenactments as beautifully choreographed by Alida Chase and gracefully danced by members of the Australian Ballet and Leigh Warren & Dancers. Also, there were the magnificent costumes created by Jill Hickey to consider.

The diaries were written when the celebrated dancer was 30 and was still lucid and his lifelong slide into madness was only at its beginning stages, there are no writings presented from before that time frame or after when he was declared insane. Nijinsky says, “My madness is my love for mankind.” Before his madness becomes unbearable, he mentions in such a moving way: “The nerves in my head hurt me. I feel my blood has rushed from my head. I feel death near me. I am afraid that I will be put in an asylum.” His last words were “There is a God.”

There was a much edited diary edition around from as early on as 1936 that gave the legendary dancer’s fans something to chew on, but in 1999 a new unexpurgated and thereby truer version came out through the efforts of publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux under the astute editorship of Joan Acocella, which was the one used by the filmmaker.

Cox acquired the rights to the diary through the Nijinsky family and therefore had the rights to the film and could have gotten a big-budget from Hollywood and gone the big star route whenever he chose to, but instead looked upon himself as a servant to the diary and his mission was to get it on film as it was written and therefore chose to do it in this more personal and intimate and uncompromising way. It’s shot like all his other films in a richly artistic way that doesn’t compromise his beliefs, and therefore is not always pleasing to a public conditioned on mainstream films and film critics who are more interested in defending mainstream films than taking a chance on an art film that they don’t get. They’re comeback seems to always be that an art film that doesn’t fit their concept of the way a film should be made, can only be pretentious. Ummm! Nijinsky in his diaries has taken exception with critics who don’t take their audience into account and only react from their limited personal beliefs when they ignorantly slash away at things they don’t grasp.

What the film is able to afford to do it does excellently, such as the stunning opening scene of the funeral procession. The dance scene re-enacted from “L’Apres-midi d’un Faune” could be used as an example as to how engrossing the music and visuals were throughout. That dance really was the very start of modern dance. More so than anything else, and in the Cox film it’s given special treatment and it works just like this unorthodox documentary works for those who have a sensitivity to the artist and to his struggles against such a cold and indifferent world.

This film was featured at the Toronto filmfest, but unfortunately it was played a few days after the shock of 9/11 and most in the audience seemingly were in a mood to see a different type of film rather than one that was so personally painful as this one. Many in the audience walked out and Paul Cox who attended, spoke to those who remained and in a heartfelt gesture said that those who stayed and could identify with Nijinsky and what he stood for — are better human beings because of it. I think that’s a fair statement to make.


REVIEWED ON 12/30/2002 GRADE: A +