Neither documentary nor fiction, Paul Cox's new film, "The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky," is based on a published work both frustrating and fascinating.
Viewers of the film are likely to experience both emotions. The film is a messy, impressionistic rendering of a messy, impressionistic document — namely, the diary kept by the great Russian dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, as he slowly went mad in the years following World War I.
But Cox's film is often a gloriously beautiful mess, and includes a stunning outdoor re-staging of Nijinsky's landmark 1912 modern ballet, "The Afternoon of a Faun."
Madness, wrote Nijinsky, is "a sickness of the soul, not the mind." He wrote feverishly, trying to grasp what was happening to him as his skills faded and his grasp on reality became weaker.
Dance critic Joan Acocella points out, in her published introduction to the diaries, that Nijinsky's musings are the only sustained written record we have of a great artist documenting his own psychosis.
On that level, it's an astonishing document, but painfully difficult to read — a staccato series of observations and minute-by-minute thoughts; some heartbreaking, some perplexing, some simply dull.
Those seeking enlightenment as to the meaning of Nijinsky's writings, or detailed biographical information on his life, will find neither here; Cox gives us the barest of introductory notes.
Like the sideways approach of the dancers in "Faun," who glide into view with bent arms reaching to the sky, Cox comes at his subject indirectly — he offers us puzzle pieces that don't really fit together. Dance scenes are juxtaposed with a colorful blur of flowers, or the tiny visual poem of a silk skirt wafting up a shadowy staircase. All the while, Derek Jacobi's voice reads excerpts from the diaries.
The dance sequences, appropriately, are the best parts of the film. "The Afternoon of a Faun," a wonderfully decadent story of seduction that shocked audiences of the Ballets Russes in pre-war Paris, is shown here languorously unfolding in an actual forest glade.
Debussy's music shimmers like the surface of a sunlit pond; the dancers' arms twist in the light. Nijinsky noted, in his diaries, that "Faun" took him two months to write down and 10 minutes to perform. It's a sublime 10 minutes, making "Diaries" a must-see for those who love dance.
Cox, who made last year's beautiful (but little-seen) love story "Innocence," is clearly engaged, perhaps to the point of obsession, with Nijinsky's legacy. He's deliberately made a film that will appeal to only a very small audience, and even that audience will have its moments of frustration.
But "Diaries," a heartfelt tribute to one artist from another, will haunt me for some time. "God is beauty with feeling," wrote Nijinsky. At times, Cox’s film, racing from image to image in a madman’s mind, achieves exactly that.
Moira Macdonald: email@example.com.