International as it undoubtedly is, the London Film Festival makes one concession to old-fashioned Englishness with its rather quaintly-titled “Filmmaker Afternoon Teas”. Held at the Mayfair Hotel, these gatherings give journalists a chance to meet directors in an informal setting, for either one-on-one or roundtable interviews.
Having admired Body/Ciało at this year’s Gdynia Film Festival (where the movie won the main “Golden Lions” prize), I was happy to have the opportunity to speak with Małgorzata Szumowska about the film. Born in 1973, and an alumna of both Kraków’s Jagiellonian University and Łódź Film School, Szumowska had made two features before her breakthrough film 33 Scenes From Life (33 sceny z życia, 2008) brought her to wider attention.
Since then, Szumowska has established herself as one of the Poland’s most interesting contemporary filmmakers, and one who’s eager to explore controversial subject matter, whether prostitution in the Juliette Binoche-starring Elles (2011) or a Catholic priest’s recognition of his homosexuality in In the Name Of (W imię….) (2013).
Body/Ciało strikes me as Szumowska’s most accomplished and sustained work to date. Combining elements of detective drama, supernatural enquiry and deadpan black comedy, the movie focuses on a widowed prosecutor (veteran Janusz Gajos), his anorexic teenage daughter, Olga (newcomer Justyna Suwała), and the latter’s therapist, Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), a 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 idiosyncratic spins that the film puts on that familiar premise make it an appropriately haunting experience, and one of the year’s most significant Polish productions.
“I tend to begin with a word, or an image that I want to explore,” Szumowksa tells me, when I ask her how the film evolved. “Initially I had the idea of writing about anorexia, after meeting someone who was dealing with this condition. However, that ultimately felt too limiting. I didn’t want to make an issue film here, but rather something that explored the concept of the body more broadly.”
Bodies young and old, thin and fat, healthy and dead, fill the frames of Szumowska’s movie, which is shot in a cool, dispassionate style. As with In the Name Of, the director collaborated on the film’s screenplay with the cinematographer, Michał Englert (who is also Ostaszewska’s partner), and I wondered how writing with a DP impacts upon the creative process. “It means that we’re thinking about form and the visual style from the very beginning,” Szumowska says. ”Michał will often send me images and clips as we start. They might be from films or videos, but that’s how we begin to develop our approach and to think about the look and tone of the film.”
Alongside its highly distinctive visuals and framing, Body/Ciało is also striking in its incorporation of pop music. Szumowska uses two songs in the film. One is Gerry and the Pacemaker’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the spiritually-minded Carousel, and later co-opted as a football anthem, which is employed in the film as a possible message from the dead matriarch. The other track is the punky “Śmierć w bikini” (“Death in Bikini”), by the iconic Polish rock band Republika, which scores a memorable bare-breasted dancing scene by the veteran actress Ewa Dałkowska. When I ask Szumowska about her reasoning in choosing these tracks, it soon becomes clear that both songs have highly personal associations for the filmmaker.
“Ah, Liverpool!” Szumowska says delightedly, with reference to “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. “My son and I are big football fans. We were listening to various anthems, and this one stood out, especially for the lyrics, which connect with the film’s themes. As for ‘Death in Bikini’, I have very fond memories of listening to Republika when I was a teenager in the ’80s. In those grey, oppressive Communist days, a band like this represented freedom for us, a kind of liberation. There’s something so absurd about ‘Death in Bikini’, and yet it’s a bit scary and sexual at the same time. As with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ I was also drawn to the lyrical content, and felt that it could serve the film.”
The absurd, the sexual, the scary: Body/Ciało combines all of these, and Szumowska says that she’s always excited by “mixing genres”, viewing this as a way of “keeping the audience off balance”. The film is also hybridised at the level of its title, with its combination of English and Polish. “In part this was for practical reasons, since there was already a popular Polish film called Ciało,” Szumowska admits, referring to Tomasz Konecki and Andrzej Saramonowicz’s 2003 comedy. “Naturally, we wanted to distinguish our film from that one. But the title also speaks to a duality that’s at the heart of the film. So many of the scenes have double meanings, or can be understood in two ways. In addition, increasingly in Poland, people move fluidly between Polish and English. The title was a way of referring to this, too.”
While Gajos and Suwała were awarded the Best Actor and Best Debut prizes at Gdynia, Maja Ostaszewska was overlooked for her work as Anna, though Szumowska has described her performance as in many ways “the heart of the film”. “The role was written for Maja,” Szumowska tells me. “She’s been in many movies and is also well respected as a theatre actress. Since she has quite a glamorous persona, some people were surprised that we would think of her for an asexual character such as Anna. But she’s a wonderful actress so of course she could do it. And we were well aware of the comedy she could bring to the role.”
Part of the comedy in the early scenes of the film comes from Anna’s interactions with her dog, a massive mutt named Fredek; their bond is revealed in a priceless sequence that wouldn’t have been out of place in Turner & Hooch. “The dog certainly improvised,” Szumowska says, wryly. “He just pulled Maja along in those scenes where she’s walking him.”
The working-class neighbourhoods depicted in Body/Ciało are far from glamorous, but the film gives them a particular grandeur and, at times, a strange beauty, as in a striking shot in which Anna sits dwarfed by massive tenement housing behind her. I recall the experience of watching Body/Ciało at a public screening in Gdynia, the cinema packed with an appreciative and responsive crowd, despite the film already having opened in Poland several months before the Festival. To what extent does Szumowska see Body/Ciało as telling a specifically Polish story?
“Well, the context is certainly Polish, and of course there are elements that will resonate strongly with Poles. But we were striving for something universal, too, and ultimately the film is a family story. This is what films should provide, I believe: universal stories, emerging from a particular context. Polish audiences do seem to love this film. But I’m happy that it also travels well.”
Szumowska has another screenplay already completed, and while she was reluctant to divulge too many details about it at this stage, she hinted that the movie might in some way be an elaboration of the themes explored in Body/Ciało. The new movie’s working title? Face.