After Images: Poland's 41st Gdynia Film Festival
From painters to interrogators, some of the finest films at Gdynia Film Festival 2016 dramatized real-life figures from the country’s past.
It’s fair to say that last year’s Gdynia Film Festival -- the 40th edition of Poland’s most prestigious showcase for its national cinema -- was a festival like no other. This was for reasons both good (notably, a superb selection of films including works as diverse as Jerzy Skolimowski’s sublime city symphony 11 Minutes, Kuba Czekaj’s mind-blowing candy-coloured puberty portrait Baby Bump, Kinga Dębska's touching and hilarious These Daughters of Mine, and Małgorzata Szumowska’s wryly austere Body/Ciało, which scooped the main prize) and for reasons truly horrendous: namely, the death of the 42-year-old director Marcin Wrona, which occurred on the penultimate evening of the event.
The emotions were still raw when I posted my final dispatch, and I would only add to that post that many of us who were at Gdynia in 2015 ended up feeling changed by the whole experience, which combined the great joy of seeing so much challenging and inspiring work with shared shock and grief at a talented filmmaker’s passing.
Poland’s political landscape has also changed since last year's Festival: the election last October of the nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has proved divisive, to say the least. The impact that the new government’s policies will have on Poland’s film industry remains to be seen, but that new political context provides the background to some of the controversies that the Festival found itself embroiled in even before it got underway this year. Criticisms have included the absence of any work by female filmmakers in the Main Competition and the decision to feature, among the out-of-competition “Special Screenings”, Antoni Krauze's Smoleńsk, a thriller about the air crash that killed 96 passengers, including President Lech Kaczynski and his top officials, in April 2010. Speaking about the decision to include the film in this year's programme, Artistic Director Michał Oleszczyk expressed the organizers’ hopes that “the Festival will help all of us in leading a relevant conversation on a topic that is still a challenge to ... Poles as a democratic community of citizens.”
Such conversations are part of the wider cultural discussion in which every festival of national cinema inevitably participates. From an outsider’s perspective, though, Gdynia 2016 felt as welcoming and as inclusive as it did in previous years, and its line-up was almost equally diverse and enticing. Those who felt like venturing outside of the borders of Polish cinema could do so via screenings of the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour, Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, or episodes of HBO’s The Night Of. For most of those in attendance, however, Gdynia fest is all about immersion in Polish productions, whether old or new.
The notion of legacy and continuum feels particularly important at this event, for among the admirable aspects of contemporary Polish film culture is its commitment to the curation and preservation of the country’s movie-making past. That commitment was firmly on display at the Festival this year: whether in the popular “Pre-War Cinema Treasures” strand or in the "Pure Classics" section, which this time paid loving tribute to two of the undisputed greats of Polish film: Krzysztof Kieślowski (who died 20 years ago) and Andrzej Żuławski (who died earlier this year), via retrospectives, free outdoor screenings, poster exhibitions, and more.
Office for Monument Construction
While the absence of work by female filmmakers in this year’s Main Competition is certainly to be regretted (and is probably more a case of unfortunate timing than willful omission, since directors including Szumowska and Agnieszka Holland have projects currently in development), it should be noted that work by women was well represented in other areas of the Festival, including the Young Cinema Competition, and the always-exciting “Visions Apart” strand which showcases more experimental productions. Look out, in particular, for Karolina Breguła’s Office for Monument Construction, an amusingly deadpan, Glasgow-filmed concoction about collecting, communicating, and a city’s imminent destruction. It’s “a wee curiosity”, to say the least.
United States of Love
Female characters were also central to the first Main Competition film that I saw. Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love (Zjednoczone Stany Miłości) is the 36-year-old filmmaker's follow-up to the well-received Floating Skyscrapers (Płynące wieżowce) (2013): a rare foray into LGBT cinema for Poland that was as notable for its cool visual elegance as for the pessimism of its perspective.
Both of those qualities are again on display in Wasilewski's latest, which takes the form of a triptych about four lovelorn women, each connected (intimately or loosely) to the other. Set in the uneasy transitional period after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and shot in striking desaturated colours, the film's most involving strand focuses on the fallout of an affair between a headmistress (Magdalena Cielecka) and a doctor (Andrzej Chyra) after the death of the latter's wife ends up causing more strife than liberation for the two lovers.
Featuring a memorably brutal confrontation scene that drew some gasps from the audience, this narrative mostly shows Wasilewski at his brittle best. However, the other strands are more problematic, notwithstanding a fine performance from Dorota Kolak in the final section, as an older teacher who lives in a bird-filled apartment and is nurturing an erotic / maternal obsession with Iza's younger sister Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz).
With the naked flesh of its characters frequently displayed in baths, swimming pools, and bedrooms, United States of Love is as boldly body-conscious as Body/Ciało was, and it also shares something of that film's studied, art-conscious ambience. (Small wonder that this year's Berlinale jury, on which Szumowska featured, saw fit to award the movie the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay.) But where Body/Ciało benefited from Szumowska's confounding manipulations of tone, and a lot of sly humour, Wasilewski’s movie succumbs to a mood of grinding grimness. The potency of the images isn't always matched by the screenplay, either, which doesn’t entirely avoid clunkiness and cliché. Wasilewski is clearly talented, and the movie has a consistency of vision, but, like Floating Skyscrapers, United States of Love is less affecting than it might be, foundering on its confusion of bleakness with insight, pessimism with profundity.
Another Main Competition disappointment was Łukasz Grzegorzek’s Kamper, a comedy-drama about a slacker-ish 20-something video-game tester (Piotr Żurawski) who responds to his wife’s adultery with a TV chef by staring an affair with his Spanish teacher (a character who, in the film’s presentation, ticks practically every sultry, carefree Latina cliché). A bright spot in the movie is the likeable, honest performance of Justyna Suwała as our hero’s pregnant colleague, and a parody of life-or-death cookery shows raises some laughs, but the film finally feels as aimless as its protagonist, and just about as tiresome.
More distinctive by far was Kuba Czekaj’s The Erlprince (Królewicz Olch), a highly stylized head-scratcher that found the writer-director graduating to the Main Competition, in a decidedly ballsy and subversive choice of Opening Night film on the part of the Festival organizers. When I saw Baby Bump last year, I didn’t hesitate to label Czekaj a vibrant new voice in Polish cinema. With the focus again placed firmly on a mother / son relationship (and with the excellent Agnieszka Podsiadlik once more on board as the matriarch), The Erlprince and Baby Bump feel very much like self-conscious companion pieces.
In fact, The Erlprince was actually completed before Baby Bump and that’s good news, since the movie is rather less sustained, its mixing up of physics, Goethe, Oedipal tensions and an apocalyptic countdown failing to cohere in the way that Baby Bump’s combination of elements miraculously managed to. A happy hallucination towards the end feels lifted straight out of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014), and that’s not the only point of kinship that the movie has with Dolan’s similarly divisive work. Still, the film offers some unique pleasures, and at its best succeeds in putting the viewer in the busy head-space of its teenage protagonist, who’s well played by the talented newcomer Stanisław Cywka.
The experiences of young characters were also central to All These Sleepless Nights (Wszystkie nieprzespane noce), the latest indulgent docu-fiction hybrid from Michał Marczak, and also to Artur Urbańsk’s rather better The Crystal Girl (Kryształowa dziewczyna), the diploma film of the Łódź Film School acting students, which screened in the “Visions Apart” sidebar. “Visions Apart” also yielded one of the Festival’s most polished gems in Ederly, an equal parts baffling and beguiling enigma about family, identity and community by animation veteran Piotr Dumała. Poetic and absurdist, the movie is beautifully shot by Adam Sikora and gorgeously scored by Selma Mutal.
Returning to the Main Competition offerings, it was fun to see Mitja Okorn’s Planet Single (Planeta Singli) with a Polish audience. This smart (if only in the sense of “dating app” smart) rom com has been a huge hit at the domestic box office. As corny as hell in some of its developments (not least a cutesy climax involving a kiddie choir), and with some oddly tasteless moments as well, the movie manages to be quite appealing, with a few enjoyable plot twists and funny supporting turns that beguile more than its central romance.
At the other end of the scale of seriousness, meanwhile, was Ryszard Bugajski’s Blindness (Zaćma), a taut, talky fact-based drama that imagines the encounter, in 1962, between one Julia Brystygier (Maria Mamona), a Stalinist-era Ministry of Information interrogator, and Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński (Marek Kalita), a man whose arrest she facilitated ten years earlier. At times too heavy-handed in its approach to its themes of guilt and repentance, Bugajski’s film nonetheless proves consistently compelling in its contribution to the cultural conversation regarding Poland’s complexly interwoven histories of Catholicism, Communism and Jewishness. In addition, the film boasts a staggeringly intense performance from Mamona that ranks as one of the Festival’s best.
The last two films that I saw both focused on real-life artist figures. Afterimage (Powidoki) , the latest from the now 90-year-old master Andrzej Wajda was more worthy than thrilling: a portrait of the persecutions suffered by the avant garde artist Władysław Strzemiński (Bogusław Linda) at the hands of the Communist authorities in the '50s. With a fine score made up of Andrzej Panufnik compositions, the movie is respectful, well-intentioned and always engaging but it lacks the kind of energy that gave Wajda’s last film, 2013’s Wałęsa, some spark.
The Last Family
The Last Family (Ostatnia Rodzina), the feature debut of Jan P. Matuszynski, is something else, though: a rich, surprisingly funny and achingly poignant drama based on the last 25 years in the life of Zdzisław Beksiński, the highly revered Surrealist painter and photographer.
A portrait of the artist in the context of his domestic and familial arrangements, the movie focuses on the dynamic between Beksiński (superb Andrzej Seweryn, who won the Best Actor prize at Locarno for his performance), his patient wife Zofia (a quietly heart-rending Aleksandra Konieczna), and the couple’s troubled son, Tomek (Dawid Ogrodnik), who worked as a DJ and film translator.
Beksiński’s art was known for its apocalyptic visions of death and decay. As its title indicates, The Last Family is also deeply concerned with loss and mortality, but it approaches those issues in a relatable way that’s as humble as it is insightful. Eschewing obvious attention to sociopolitical context, the focus is firmly on family dynamics and the rhythms of domestic life, from which wider resonances emerge. An emblematic scene combines instructions on how to use a washing machine with concern over placement in the family tomb.
Given the sorrows that beset the Beksińskis, the film’s low-key, unfussy and non-reverential tone is little short of astonishing. Matuszynski’s filmmaking is supremely intelligent: static shots which usually frame the characters in doorways are juxtaposed with the home movie footage that Beksiński obsessively makes. (The passage of time in the movie is traced, in part, through his recourse to ever-slicker recording devices.)
Matuszynski and screenwriter Robert Bolesto trust us as viewers to feel our way into this family situation. They don’t force anything and, in its lovely attention to the texture of the quotidian (with scenes showing the put-upon Zofia scrubbing floors, removing a spider from her terrified husband’s studio, or caring for her and Beksiński’s ailing mothers), the film owes a debt to Mike Leigh’s work. But it echoes Leigh at his finest: that is, when he’s not judging or simplifying or sentimentalizing. Ogrodnik’s performance as Tomek is sublime, too: garrulous, volatile, dancing to Yazoo like a man possessed, yet capable of moments of calm and control; it’s not too hard to imagine Leigh regular David Thewlis inhabiting this role some 25 years ago.
So intimately do Matuszynski and his collaborators involve us in this family that the film’s deeply painful final scenes arrive like a punch to the gut, even if you know what’s coming. Signing off with This Mortal Coil’s indelible version of “Song to the Siren” (“Here I am / Waiting to hold you”), The Last Family becomes a haunting, lacerating work, one that touches very personal feelings. It was, without doubt, the best movie that I saw at Gdynia this year. Distribution being what it is these days, it’s hard to know for sure just how widely The Last Family will be seen outside of Poland. I predict, though, that this miracle of a movie will win admirers and awards wherever it does get shown.