In his diary, revolutionary dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky complained, “Critics are selfish – they write about their own opinion and not the opinion of the audience.” Even though the man was mad as a hatter when he wrote it (he also griped, “I looked at a star, which did not say good evening”), I felt a peculiar obligation to keep his grievance in mind while reviewing Nijinsky: The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. But since loud snoring and several walkouts punctuated the screening I attended, I’m pretty confident I’ve taken the audience’s views into account when I say this movie isn’t so great.
While on the brink of madness, Nijinsky struggled desperately to capture his final moments of clarity on the written page. Using these writings as text, Nijinsky attempts to portray the dancer from his point of view. Not a documentary in the traditional sense, Nijinsky feels more like a poetry reading or performance art piece captured on film. Derek Jacobi, in voiceover, reads entries from Nijinsky’s diary, while onscreen, “artsy” shots of nature are clumsily intercut with conceptual footage of a Greek chorus pantomiming scenes from Nijinsky’s life and performing some of his most famous dances (this is particularly jarring; there’s something unnatural about ballet performed in a natural setting).
With no dialogue other than the narration, the repetitive visuals are echoed in the recurring themes Nijinsky contemplates. These range from abstract to downright bizarre: “Red roses frighten me, my love is white.” “I love the earth.” “I want to love everyone, therefore I am God.” “I am inventing a fountain pen, which will be called God.” Periodically, a glimmer of true insight pops up: “God is not in icons, but the soul of man.” “I am not afraid of death, I am afraid of the death of the spirit.” “I feel that I am doomed.” These moments, though rare, offer a tragic reminder that they were written by a brilliant artist losing his delicate grasp on reality.
Despite this genuinely touching dichotomy, the film is far from affecting. Fans of Nijinsky and of ballet in general are certain to be disappointed, as are gays – although Nijinsky is known to have had an affair with his teacher, he only briefly references homosexuality to disavow it. More a portrait of madness in general than Nijinsky in particular, the movie offers very little insight into the life of Nijinsky, one of the most celebrated dancers of all time.