In Holland's work many worlds meet Profile: Former Polish exile Agnieszka Holland has made movies in France, Germany, England and Poland. Now she's directing one in Baltimore.

August 11, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC Intern Will Reichel contributed to this story.

"Hot Sex," the sign says, but of course some wag with a Magic Marker and a penchant for wishful thinking has altered the original, which merely promised "Hot Set."

No, there's probably not much sex going on. The set is, however, indisputably hot. It cost about $2 million and sits in a building that resembles a 747 hangar on a nondescript parcel wedged into a nondescript Baltimore neighborhood; you could drive by it for years and never even notice it. But inside, nothing's nondescript.

Instead, step through the door marked Hot Sex and find yourself in a contradictory universe. The antique furnishings, the damask tablecloth, the paintings, the curtains -- all say 1850, the milieu of the prosperous bourgeois at the time of maximum comfort. The miles of cable on the floor, the VCRs, the racks of lamps and hosts of technicians all say 1996, big-time movie making.

The two worlds -- and many others -- meet in the improbable figure of Agnieszka Holland, 48, the former Polish exile film director who has come to Baltimore's Flite 3 Film Studio as well as Union Square and the Latrobe House to restore Henry James' "Washington Square" to the screen.

This version, the promise has been made, will present the story as James himself wrote it, not as it was popularized, bowdlerized and sentimentalized in the 1949 film version called "The Heiress."

As one soon learns, the formidable Holland is not one for popularizing, bowdlerizing or sentimentalizing.

A short, brusque woman in tennis shoes and a shapeless green dress with a WAC NCO haircut, she appears never to have heard of the world of fashion. This is said not in contempt but in complete admiration: Nothing appears to exist at all to her except this little world behind the Hot Sex door where her will commands absolute obedience.

So utterly committed to her work, so utterly in command, so utterly without pretense, she navigates her world with almost absolute authority, as if the lessons she's mastered almost mastered her, but now that she knows them, nothing will get in her way.

"I like to have things the way I like to have them," she will confess later, with a tyrant's modest smile and almost a giggle. Then she'll add, almost with a regret, "I try to stay open to the creativity of my staff and actors" and you think, "Yeah, they all say that!"

And to look at Holland is to encounter all European complexity in its full meatiness. She's been a blacklist victim, an exile, a dissenter, a political jailbird; she's been called an anti-Semite (she's half-Jewish); she's called people (mainly Germans) anti-Semites; she hasn't lived with her husband, a journalist, in years; she went through a separation from her daughter for months before reunification in the West; her father may even have been murdered by the secret police.

Grace of a survivor

She's a one-woman Joseph Conrad novel. All history's nasty little morals and its lust for tragedy appear stamped into her small bones, lending her the wary grace of a survivor. She regards the world as if it can no longer surprise her. She knows its complexities, its disappointments, its idiocies, and she can survive them, too.

But can she survive her first American movie?

So far, so good.

After all, Holland is something of a citizen of the world who floats from culture to culture, putting down roots and doing good, then moving on.

Her resume reads like a history of the world cinema. In France she made the very French movie "Olivier, Olivier." In England, she made the classic English tale "The Secret Garden." In Germany, she made the ironic and still controversial "Europa, Europa," winning an Oscar nomination in the process. In her native Poland, in the days before her exile, she made "A Woman Alone" and "Angry Harvest."

But is "Washington Square" really so far from a European sensibility?

James, after all, was a notoriously queasy American, who felt much more at home on the Continent. In his own way, perhaps, he was escaping American simplicity and grasping at European ambiguity.

"It is," confirms the intense Holland, in later conversation (over her breakfast of cantaloupe chunks and a bagel with cream cheese), "the ambiguous quality of James that I find so attractive. That and the dynamic of change in the main character, as she goes from nothing to her own sense of selfhood."

That role -- Catherine Sloper -- is played by the tiny Jennifer Jason Leigh, who can be glimpsed on the set in a pair of khakis and a shapeless sweater as she drearily goes through some early blocking assignments for the day's shots.

The possibly unworthy swell who woos her is played by Ben Chaplin, who rose to prominence in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs." He's another scrawny one.

The real heavyweight in the cast is Albert Finney, a virtual Olmec statue of pure 100 percent Irish beef who shows up for the same dreary blocking work in a sleeveless T-shirt and a pair of suspenders and some blue trousers signifying God knows what.

Democracy of the set

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