After releasing 1994's Red, the culmination of the Three Colors trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski announced his retirement, and though there were rumblings about a return, he died in 1996. Kieslowski gave up on movies, but the movies never gave up on him. For a whole generation of European filmmakers who keep envisioning life as a tapestry of meaningful coincidence, Kieslowski has had an enduring influence, so it's no wonder that even his apocrypha has risen in value. In 2002, Tom Tykwer directed Heaven from a Kieslowski script meant to be the first in a new trilogy. For Big Animal, longtime Kieslowski actor-turned-director Jerzy Stuhr had to dig even deeper into the Kieslowski archives: The bittersweet tale has its roots in the Iron Curtain era, but its resonance stretches further.
Big Animal is the story of a man, a woman, and their camel. Specifically, it's the story of a small-town bank clerk (played by Stuhr) who adopts a camel, much to the initial chagrin of his wife, Ann Dymna. She eventually melts to the creature's wooly charms, but the wonder of their fellow villagers quickly gives way to an inchoate resentment. Who, after all, has a camel? Local bureaucrats share their unease, particularly when it becomes clear that there's no proper camel tax. And why, wonders a local businessman, doesn't Stuhr want to cash in on his extraordinary possession? It couldn't be that he simply likes having a camel, could it?
Stuhr sustains a fable-like tone throughout his short, unapologetically small movie. Shooting in dreamy black and white, he finds quiet poetry in shots of his character wandering the countryside with his new friend, and deadpan comedy in scenes of the camel patiently watching his new owners eat dinner, his head filling a window frame as he waits for scraps. The coded critiques of Communism's rage for conformity may date Big Animal a bit, but the broader critiques of conformity make it timeless. Looked at askance, it's Edward Scissorhands, but with a humped animal instead of Johnny Depp. It shares little with Kieslowski's best-known work, but its charms are such that it doesn't have to. It's a beast all its own.