Gdynia Film Festival 2015

'Damaged' + 'These Daughters of Mine'

by Alex Ramon

18 September 2015

Two female-focused family portraits prove to be entrancing gems in this year's Main Competition at Gdynia.
Damaged (Panie Dulskie) 

Beautifully short-haired in her role as the spiritualist/therapist in Body/Ciało, Maja Ostaszewska sports rather unflattering permed and dyed blonde tresses in Panie Dulskie. That unfortunate coiffure is just about the only discordant element in Filip Bajon’s film, however. Well, that and the unappealing, inappropriate English title that the movie’s been saddled with (Damaged). I guess that something like “The Dulska Clan” or “Dulskie Women” would be a fair translation of the original title.
  
Otherwise, though, Panie Dulskie is just delightful. The movie is an ingenious and hugely enjoyable huis clos in which Ostaszewska plays Melanie, a film director in search of a project who returns to the family home accompanied by one Rainer Dulsky (Władysław Kowalski), a Swiss psychiatry prof who believes that he has a connection to the property (which is a well-appointed tenement flat).

Arriving at the house, Melanie and Rainer are not exactly warmly welcomed by Melanie’s mother (Katarzyna Figura). Thus begins a non-linear family narrative that juxtaposes the Dulski fortunes at three different historical junctures, and that sees various skeletons start a-tumbling from the family closet.

It’s not too surprising to discover that Panie Dulskie has some original roots in a play, Gabriela Zapolska’s 1907 classic The Morality of Mrs. Dulska (Moralność pani Dulskiej).  With its vivid, juicy roles, and with the majority of the action unfolding inside the house, this is a film that’s theatrical in the very best sense. Bajon uses the interior wonderfully well: it’s a stage for a satirical comedy of manners, but one capable of a Gothic flourish or two, and that combination encapsulates the film’s tone.

The focus is a family whose most forceful figure (Krystyna Janda’s strident matriarch) believes in insularity, proudly proclaiming that the Dulska clan has never participated in any social movements and keeps its dirty laundry (should it have any) firmly behind closed doors. Yet the movie reveals its three main characters—grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter alike—to all very much be products of their time.

To that end, Panie Dulskie moves abruptly between three time periods, presenting the contemporary, 1994 events alongside strands set in 1914 and 1954. This structure takes some working out, but persistence pays dividends in the final third, which brings the proceedings together in a manner that’s as satisfying as it is surprising.

The contrasts and connections between the three main Dulska women are deftly drawn, with the characters effectively linked through repeated dialogue and subtle visual matches. Some contextual elements may challenge a non-Polish audience, but for the most part the comedy communicates beautifully throughout. The pay-off to a running gag involving the Janda character’s anti-cinema sentiments is worth the price of admission alone.

Indeed, as strong as all the cast is (though the male roles are considerably less rich than the female ones), it’s the iconic Janda (star of Wajda’s monumental Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1981) to name but two classics) who walks off with the picture as the imperious, propriety-obsessed (and possibly murderous) matriarch. Janda’s expert performance crowns a terrifically entertaining, apparently small-scale but subtly ambitious movie that deserves to be seen and enjoyed beyond Polish borders.

These Daughters of Mine (Moje córki krowy)

These Daughters of Mine (Moje córki krowy)

An equally delightful Main Competition surprise turned out to be Kinga Dębska’sThese Daughters of Mine (less charming Polish title: Moje córki krowy), a family portrait that seems to start in fairly broad sitcom mode but that develops unexpectedly into something richer, deeper and very moving, while managing to remain laugh-out-loud funny throughout. It’s a great pleasure when a rather unpromising movie shoots way up and over your expectations, and that’s what happened for me with this particular film.

Agata Kulesza (most familiar to non-Polish audiences as Aunt Wanda in Pawlikowski’s Ida) plays Marta, a middle-aged actress whose mother (Małgorzata Niemirska) suffers a stroke, forcing Marta to join forces with her sister Kasia (Gabriela Muskała) despite the pair’s mutual antipathy. But the sisters find themselves even more challenged when their father (Marian Dziędziel) also begins to ail.

In its mixture of humour and tears, plus its focus on a professional woman’s struggles in caring for a dying matriarch, These Daughters of Mine evokes Nanni Moretti’s recent Mia Madre, seen at this year’s Cannes. Yet everything that felt bland and characterless to me in Moretti’s movie seems lively, heartfelt, relatable and perceptive here.

Part of that is down to the sharpness of Dębska’s script which combines tart humour with tenderness in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or calculated. The family members’ squabbles and moments of complicity, their mingled irritation and affection with each other, are slightly heightened yet insightfully drawn.

Dębska treats her characters with respect and even-handedness but without sentimentality. No one is either demonized or deified and we come to care about them all, even Kasia’s “slacker” spouse, Grzegorz (a cherishably self-effacing cameo from Marcin Dorociński). The cast excel, with the veteran Marian Dziędziel especially memorable as the women’s father, capturing beautifully the old man’s confusion, rudeness, charm and vulnerability.

These Daughters of Mine becomes a surprisingly emotional experience. The movie touches some very personal feelings, and I think many people at the screening were affected in this way judging by the lengthy, loving applause and cheers that greeted the cast and crew after the Musical Theatre screening. Again, it’s to be hoped that this modest but very lovely and resonant movie gets some exposure at other festivals in Europe, and beyond.

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