Over the hump
The plot is deceptively simple. Left behind by a circus, a full-grown camel wanders to the house of an uncomplicated, childless middle-aged couple. Although the wife is initially bewildered by the strange and unexpected beast, her husband immediately adopts it as a pet.
As the man and his new companion take their daily walks in the suburban village, neighbors are drawn to the odd sight and approach him about riding the camel or using it for any number of purposes. He declines to exploit or capitalize on the friendly animal, and is met with barely veiled hostility. In time, the camel becomes a burden on both the town and the man, who’s edged out of community affairs and lives on shaky ground with his wife.
“What bothers me are not the obvious symptoms of intolerance that I’d call fascist-like aberrations,” Stuhr says in a behind-the-scenes feature included in the DVD from Milestone Films. “I’m more interested in intolerance among ordinary people, decent people.” His interpretation is less assertive about conformity than one would expect, gravitating instead toward a sensibility closer in spirit to James Thurber. And on more than one occasion the film had me thinking of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (1956).
It seems apparent that Kieslowski—who was once set to direct—would’ve worked from the political subtext of the source material. There’s a wealth of Kafkaesque persecution and paranoia waiting to be mined from Orlos’s original, but Stuhr’s innate benevolence and dry humor protects him from stepping too far into the abyss. While this certainly works to the benefit of the comedy and human drama of the picture (avoiding those murky fatalistic potholes Kieslowski often swam in), it diminishes the irony of the final act, and makes those heartwarming last moments in the zoo feel rigged. Yet other scenes, such as dinner between the couple and the camel, and an impromptu jam session between it and a clarinet, are awfully hard to resist.
As an actor, Stuhr is from the school of plus-size pathos—Charles Laughton, Jean Hersholt, Hugo Haas. His appearances for Kieslowski brought doughy hangdog grief to the director’s patented, highly visualized style in Three Colors: White (1994) and episodes of The Decalogue (1990). His scenes with the camel in The Big Animal are evocative and touching, the work of someone well versed in alienation and loneliness. Playing his wife, Anna Dymna is an excellent counterpart, balancing beady-eyed skepticism with romantic longing. When under the spell of the animal’s charm, she’s simply radiant.
The Big Animal
Directed by Jerzy Stuhr. Screenplay by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Based on the story “The Camel” by Kazimierz Orlos. Music by Abel Korzeniowski. Cinematography by Pawel Edelman. Edited by Elzbieta Kurkowska. With Jerzy Stuhr and Anna Dymna. 73 minutes. Poland; originally released in 2000.