Already honoured at Berlin, where it won the Silver Bear for best direction, Małgorzata Szumowska’s Body/Ciało screens at Gdynia following its domestic theatrical release earlier this year, confirming its status as one of the most significant Polish productions of 2015.
An uncanny blend of police procedural, deadpan black comedy and supernatural enquiry, the movie is an appropriately haunting experience, and the most accomplished and sustained feature that Szumowska has delivered to date.
A trio of characters provides the film’s focus. Janusz Gajos plays an unnamed veteran prosecutor who’s forever appearing at grisly crime scenes and is long past being bothered by what he sees.
The character is a widower whose teenage daughter Olga (Justyna Suwała) has never gotten over her mother’s death and is suffering from anorexia. Olga receives treatment from Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), a therapist and spiritualist who believes that Olga’s mother is trying to make contact from beyond the grave.
At its heart, Body/Ciało is essentially another work that pits reason against faith, presenting an archetypal face-off between cynic and believer. But the movie puts some interesting, idiosyncratic spins on that familiar premise.
For one, the picture’s perspective on Anna is intriguingly slippery. On the one hand, Szumowska cooks up a tragic loss in the character’s past that would explain Anna’s need to believe that our lost loved ones are “always with us”.
On the other hand, the movie avoids reducing the character — described by her boss in cringe-inducing misogynist terms as “a childless old maid tree-hugger” — to a mere object of pity or a figure of fun. No florid Madame Arcati, Anna — with her neat, short hair, prim outfits and sensible shoes — can’t simply be defined as either crank or visionary: there’s plenty of space for audience interpretation here.
Ostaszewska’s skillfully modulated performance, combining warmth, steeliness and occasional eruptions of humour, scrupulously preserves these ambiguities. The actress is well matched by compelling work from Gajos and from Suwała, who’s especially strong in a scene in which Olga’s rage at her father surfaces under Anna’s therapy.
Lensed by Michał Englert (who co-wrote the script with Szumowska) Body/Ciało has a cool, clinical look. It’s no surprise that bodies of all kinds — at rest and in motion — fill the screen. These range from the frail, thin frames of the girls in Anna’s therapy sessions to the corpulent body of Gajos’s character (one of Olga’s complaints about her father is that he’s “fat”) through the briefly glimpsed crime victims to the bare-chested abandon of an older female figure (Ewa Dałkowska) engaged in an uninhibted dance to “Śmierć w bikini” (“Death in Bikini”) by Republika. (YouTube that song right now. You won’t regret it.)
Then there’s the loping body of the intimidatingly massive dog Fredek who’s Anna’s closest companion; their bond is revealed in a priceless early sequence that wouldn’t have been out of place in Turner & Hooch.
Throughout, the film’s scenes are suggestive, episodic, often deliberately truncated or unresolved; at times the movie suggests an elaboration of the uncanny elements in some Michael Haneke movies. And, as in Haneke’s finest work, there’s not a wasted moment or an inexpressive frame in Body/Ciało.
Life Must Go On (Żyć nie umierać)
A fraught father/daughter relationship is also central to Life Must Go On, another Main Competition film but one that’s considerably more mainstream and obvious in its approach and its intentions. At last year’s Gdynia, the actor Tomasz Kot scored a huge success with Gods Bogowie (I still remember the deafening applause that greeted the announcement of his Best Actor win), in which he played Zbigniew Religa, the pioneering surgeon who carried out the first heart transplant in Poland. At this year’s Festival, Kot appears as a patient rather than a medic, starring as cancer sufferer Bartek in Maciej Migas’s debut feature Life Must Go On (Żyć nie umierać).
An actor whose career has floundered due to fecklessness, bad luck and a drinking problem, Bartek is currently serving as warm-up man on Dancing With the Stars. But his diagnosis — which gives him just a few months to live — spurs into action, and finds him resolving to take charge of his life. As such, Life Must Go On plays like a cross between Francois Ozon’s Time To Leave (2005) and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005), especially when Bartek, eager to make amends for his less-than-honourable past actions, takes to the road and starts tracking down his either embarrassed or embittered ex-lovers. But it’s his estranged daughter Monika with whom he most desires to reconnect.
Like Gods before it, Life Must Go On is a star vehicle for Kot, and it leans very heavily on the popular actor’s charisma. In fact, there’s a slight strain of schtick to some of what Kot’s up to here (he seems to be giving a performance with one eye on the audience, though maybe that’s fair enough given Bartek’s profession), but he has some effective, naked moments, especially in a few touching scenes that present Bartek alone.
It must be said, though, that for a drama about the premature ending of a life Life Must Go On maintains quite an upbeat, unassuming tone throughout. Taking its cue from its blithe title, it’s more smiley than weepy overall. (Some ill-advised race-based gags might have been snipped.) The film doesn’t add up to much, but it’s mildly diverting. It even ends with a joke: an apparition that’s a jovial surprise, and that, oddly enough, at once counters and complements the conclusion of Body/Ciało.