Gdynia Film Festival 2014 Day 2: The Word / The Mighty Angel / The Immigrant

Troubled teens and a chronic alcoholic populate two of the Main Competition films. But James Gray's The Immigrant proves the most impressive.

The insistent sound of a ringing telephone is the first thing to be heard in Anna Kazejak’s The Word (Obietnica), which opens pretty much in medias res, thrusting the viewer right into the fraught relationship between two teenagers, Lila (Eliza Rycembel) and Janek (Mateusz Więcławek).

The significance of the sound becomes apparent as the movie progresses, since communication (and, in particular, the way in which teens communicate with each other) is one of Kazejak’s concerns in this, her second feature following 2010’s Flying Pigs. The text messages, Facebook posts and Skype chats that the characters indulge in throughout the film gain greater significance when a murder gets committed and such communications become evidence in the ensuing investigation.

Kazejak’s movie is an ultimately frustrating experience. It has a tense, intriguing opening but gradually develops in a way that feels too plodding, too literal-minded. The early scenes sustain a tense, suggestive ambience, as Kazejak explores Lila’s relationships with Janek, her family and friends, the film opening on the cusp of the school vacation.

The camera follows the by turns insolent and vulnerable-looking Rycembel closely, while some key party scenes demonstrate the director’s flair for sensual atmosphere. You don’t feel Kazejak standing back and judging her young protagonists at this stage: rather, she’s right in there with them and keeping us alert to the moods and changes they go through.

But what begins, compellingly enough, by suggesting the Dardenne brothers directing a Dawson’s Creek episode gradually morphs into a less convincing teenage variant on film noir, with Lila as the movie’s damaged and damaging femme fatale. And while that development could work it’s unsatisfying here, primarily because the film is just too blunt in placing the protagonist’s pathology squarely at the door of unresolved Daddy Issues.

These come firmly to the fore when Lila’s absent father (excellent Andrejz Chyra) returns to the fold from his commitments to his new family, and his daughter’s neediness surfaces.

Even in these weaker sections, Kazejak does manage to stage some memorable moments: there’s a great little scene of Lila observing her estranged parents in a moment of ambiguous, semi-sexual tenderness, for one. But the final scenes feel forced and the shoulder-shrugging conclusion is irritating in the extreme, encapsulating the movie’s failure to make good on its early promise.

The Mighty Angel (2014)

I also had reservations about The Mighty Angel, the new film from Wojciech Smarzowski, director of the controversial The Dark House (2009) and Róża (2011). Adapted from Jerzy Pilch’s well-regarded novel, Smarzowski’s latest focuses on Jerzy, a writer and third-generation alcoholic, as he falls off the wagon quite spectacularly over a number of years.

Through a jerky, constantly shifting, non-linear time frame, the viewer pieces together Jerzy’s past and present experiences, including a promising love affair. These are supplemented by the stories of other patients who occupy the ward where Jerzy ends up.

Employing a number of self-conscious stylistic tricks to convey the effects of booze on the protagonist’s mind and body, The Mighty Angel has powerful scenes and features a typically fine performance by the impressive Robert Więckiewicz (seen last year as Wajda’s Wałęsa in the lead.

Where the picture falters, I think, is in the sheer relish with which it presents Jerzy and the other characters’ binges. A director with a strong appetite for the grotesque, Smarzowski goes all-out here, shoving the characters’ spewing, pissing, defecating and convulsing right in our faces. While, for some, this might seem like an honest confrontation with the brutal truth, the movie’s total lack of discretion finally becomes wearying, especially when coupled with some of its rather prententious dialogue. (“There is no philosophy of drinking, only a technique,” Jerzy informs us at one point.)

The movie’s sickly look is apt, perhaps, but it’s also oppressive: despite the loose structure Smarzowski never seems to allow us much room to breath. The response, of this viewer at least, is to recoil rather than empathise.

The Immigrant (2014)

The most impressive film I saw on the second day of the festival turned out to be James Gray’s The Immigrant, a magnificent and moving old-school melodrama screening in the “Polonica” strand. The Immigrant is, indeed, a film of particular significance to Poland, exploring as it does the experiences of two women, Ewa and Magda, from Katowice who arrive in New York in 1921 in search of a better life only to find themselves separated at Ellis Island when Magda is quarantined and Ewa is forced to go it alone.

Gray’s film, already released in the US and elsewhere, offers a captivating vision of America’s past, and in Marion Cotillard’s simply stunning turn, a performance of Lilian Gish-ish greatness.

Cottilard’s unforgettable work is well-supported by Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner’s perfomances as the two men who variously present Ewa with work, love, exploitation, hinderance and help. If you’ve yet to catch The Immigrant (and the film remains unreleased in the UK) I would urge you to do so at the earliest opportunity.

* * *

Above: The Word (2014)