Jan Lenica’s 1979 feature length animated film Ubu et la Grande Gidouille is his most ambitious work: boldly designed, assertively crude in its animation and subject matter, and most importantly, it is bitterly, unsparingly satirical. Ubu is a testament to a long career straddling the avant-garde and the commercial. Although Lenica lived until 2001, he worked only sporadically in animation afterwards, focusing instead on teaching and design. This was his chance to make a grand statement; to express his disillusionment at the failed promise of artistic and political ideals.
Lenica’s work had always drawn on the European avant-gardes of the pre-war era: dada, surrealism, expressionism. For his 1965 film Rhinoceros he adapted Eugene Ionescu’s touchstone play of the same name, evincing a fascination with theatrical absurdism. For his most challenging and large-scale work, however, Lenica reached for the ur-text of the theatre of the absurd, Alfred Jarry’s trio of Ubu plays.
The first and most famous play, Ubu Roi, was performed with puppets to a baying audience in Paris in 1896, while the other two parts were not performed until after Jarry’s death. Lenica condensed the three plays into seventy four minutes of irreverence, with the main bulk of the film adapted from the first play. Pere Ubu, a foulmouthed, corpulent and thoroughly dislikeable member of the bourgeoise, egged on by his wife, leads a bloody coup against the Polish royal family, only to find his own newly created autocracy under threat from the Russians. From the very first line, “Merrrrdrrrre!” it’s history as a game of Risk played in the gutter, literature as graffiti scrawled in the margins of a Shakespeare play during a lacklustre literature lesson. Lenica updates Ubu Cuckolded and Ubu Unchained to a recognisably modern-day Paris where Ubu, desperate for the cultural currency of the middle classes, becomes a plastic surgeon, is demoted to domestic servant, and finally, in a paradoxical search for more freedom, demands to be made a galley slave.
Lenica’s brand of cut-out animation is the perfect medium to convey Ubu’s cast of monstrosities. The rough edges of the characters are complemented by the jagged edges of the unsparing world they inhabit. Characters and setting are malleable; Mere Ubu transforms into a cockroach, while at one point during the coup, Ubu’s soldiers become winged heads. While Lenica’s poster art bursts with deep reds, rusty greens and majestic purples, the colour scheme of his Ubu is reduced to black lines, greys and (hinting at Jarry’s original scatological preoccupations) smears of brown. Only the mouths of the truculent characters glow red. Violence and betrayal are all treated with a deliberately childish, off-handed flatness that, as the mayhem mounts, leaves a hollow deadening feeling.
Viewed today, the film is an oddity, even when compared to other animation from the same area and era, because of its assertive crudeness of subject matter and style. As Lenica explained:
“The art of animation is stretched between two extremes. On the one side there is Walt Disney with his enormous popularity and resonance with viewers, and on the other there are quests, experiments, interesting as they are, but separated from audiences. I would like to bring these two extremes closer together, to find a golden mean for them, that is to win viewers on the one hand, while not losing anything of what is my own style. Ubu is precisely the outcome of this striving.”
Jarry, explaining the significance of Ubu’s spherical design, opined to the opening night audience of Ubu Roi that “the most polished object is that which presents the greatest number of sharp corners.” Round objects suggest zero, a void that can be filled in with the audience’s own preconceptions and neuroses. Lenica’s Ubu film, though shot through with resentment at Poland’s transformation into a Soviet satellite state, clamours to be interpreted according to the geopolitical clusterfucks that beset us today, and Ubu himself according to today’s tyrants, functionaries and demagogues.
Edit January 2018: This piece was originally written for polishcinema.org, a site that eventually went live in early 2018. This piece is mirrored there, where you’ll also find a growing selection of articles about this fascinating but often overlooked national cinema.