Monthly Archives: November 2016

United States of Love (Zjednoczone Stany Miłości, Poland 2016)

The opening sequence featuring a communal meal with three of the four women in the composition

The opening sequence featuring a communal meal with three of the four women in the composition

Tomasz Wasilewski, writer-director of United States of Love is a name to watch. Born in 1980 he has produced a narrative set in a Polish town in 1990. The English title of the film is ironic in two ways. It could be read as a comment directed at the desire of Poles in 1990 for the materialism and ‘freedom’ of American society. It could also refer to the sense of a community united in pursuit of the erotic or simply the possible comfort of an emotional relationship. Either way it is a dark prospect, emphasised by the film’s washed out colours and drab setting. This certainly isn’t a ‘date movie’ or a Friday night feelgood film.

We are plunged straight into the middle of a celebratory meal as Poland moves towards democracy, shot as a static scene in which everyone around a long dining table seems to be talking at once. I found it difficult to follow the subtitles and at the same time to scan the faces to work out who was who. The four principal female characters are all present for the meal as they are all neighbours in the same concrete housing block on several floors. The film narrative follows each of these four women for their own self contained narrative – and also interweaves them. Wasilewski uses a technique whereby he may repeat a scene from an earlier story and then start a new story with a different central character – so we also get a different perspective on the first story. This overlap becomes more noticeable when one story ends very badly and this time he doesn’t repeat the final scene – leaving us in limbo as to what happened next.

The four women, for me, seem to represent different groups of women in Polish society. Agata is a married woman, still young but with a young teenage daughter. She is the one who seems most aroused by the erotic urge associated with freedom. Many reviewers refer to her ‘unhappy marriage’. I’m not sure that describes her situation. Her husband is represented as a passive character not particularly keen to try anything new. In a nicely observed sequence we learn that the housing block has a thriving video club with homemade videotapes. ‘Adult films’ are popular with many residents and Agata watches a porn sequence that has been left on the end of a tape sent by the husband of one her friends working abroad. Agata is obsessed with the idea of seducing the young priest who visits the families in the block. The church provides one of the few flashes of colour in the neighbourhood, but it is also intrusive.

Iza is the headteacher of the local school and she has been having a long-term affair with a married doctor. For me she represents how, under the old regime in Poland, someone in her position as a professional with status could own her own car and have a rare form of independence – now threatened. Iza is wearing the green dress in the image above. Her careful coiffure, her pearls and fine bone structure give her an image of a 1950s glamour figure. She is single and comes across as a cold character, now out of time. The young woman standing behind her in the image is her sister Marzena, a former beauty queen now working as a PE instructor and in a spa hotel which welcomes its first German tourists. She wants to become a photographic model, but she also has become the object of desire for an older woman, a teacher at her sister’s school, Renata – the fourth principal character. These two characters represent very different women in the ‘new Poland’. Marzena has opportunities but appears vulnerable to all the evils of capitalist exploitation. Renata is in one sense now ‘free’ but in another ‘left behind’.

These four intriguing and inter-related stories offer plenty to engage the viewer but the visual style of the film is in some ways its most memorable feature. The young director did well to attract to the project the cinematographer Oleg Mutu from Romania and one of the principal creatives behind the Romanian New Wave. Mutu, Wasilewski and his designers create images drained of colour – so much so that before I looked at the trailer below or stills from the film, I had forgotten that the film was not shot in black and white. The effect is emphasised by the mise en scène which is devoid of (nearly) all those features of capitalist society that we take for granted – the advertisements, graffiti, posters, shop displays etc.  The effect of bleakness is further enhanced by Mutu’s compositions which use the space of the ‘Scope frame to isolate and also sometimes to push characters out of the frame as the camera holds the framing in a static shot. In one sequence, when Agata aggressively seduces her husband, the couple end up more or less out of the frame with just a foot pushing against a fitted sheet – an extraordinary image. Equally, in a film in which colour has been drained away, it is shocking to enter Renata’s apartment and to meet the greenery and brightly coloured birds she keeps for company. The most tragic and disturbing shot in the film is actually reminiscent of last year’s Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014) in which a tragedy is shown in an extreme long shot. Somehow, the seemingly huge distance from the tragedy emphasises our sense of being a helpless observer. I’ll remember the shot for a long time.

In this Cineuropa interview Tomasz Wasilewski talks a little about his childhood (he was 10 in 1990) and about his very negative feelings towards the communist period in Poland. In that sense his film certainly communicates how he feels. On the same day I saw his film at the Leeds Film Festival, I also saw Old Stone (China-Canada 2016). That film deals with the contemporary period in China and has a similar dystopian feel though here it is the ‘old values’ of communism that have been lost and the new values that are creating problems. It’s interesting that both films feature scenes of exercise classes for women – I haven’t worked out what that means yet! It’s also interesting to compare the historically themed art films coming out of Poland today (e.g. Ida (2013 as well as United States of Love) with the commercial pictures getting a UK release such as Planeta Singli (Poland 2016). I wonder what Wasilewski makes of these new blockbusters?

United States of Love has been released in a handful of UK cinemas and is also available on VOD from Curzon Home Cinema. In the UK it has been given an ’18’ certificate for “sexual assault, strong sex”. I’m not sure that the depiction of sexual activity merits an 18, but the unremitting bleakness might. I’d still recommend the film.

The Commune (Kollektivet, Denmark-Sweden-Netherlands 2016)

Mealtimes come to represent the communal idea in the household.

Mealtimes come to represent the communal idea in the household.

I’m glad I finally got to see this at a public screening (thanks to Square Chapel, Halifax). The Commune is partly a nostalgia trip for those of us who lived through the 1970s – though I was younger than the main characters, I can still recognise the world depicted here (meant to be 1975). Co-writer/director Thomas Vinterberg has his own memories of life in a commune as a small child but his writing partner Tobias Lindholm was not born until 1977. How then did they do in creative terms?

I’m not sure how Danish communes compare with their Anglo-American counterparts but the commune in this film strikes me as a little unusual since it is based in a large suburban house in the suburbs of a coastal town. The house has been left to a couple in their forties with a 14 year-old daughter. Erik, the architecture lecturer (Ulrich Thomsen) wants to sell the house, but his wife TV newscaster Anna (Trine Dyrholm) thinks their family life needs a change and she urges Erik to agree to invite friends to join them in a communal household. My sense of communes tend to be of smallholdings and rural communities or urban squats. This one seems rather bourgeois. Erik and Trine seem too ‘established’ to be in a commune – but they are joined by a younger couple with a child and some singles. The narrative then finally takes off when Erik, still confused by his role in the new set-up, falls for one of his students, 24 year-old Emma.

The narrative promises an exploration of communal life with some great scenes by the sea with everyone together, but then it becomes the story of a marriage and a family and the commune becomes simply the difficult context in which the marriage founders. Having said that, I think the representation of the commune is fair. Quite a few reviewers seem to have assumed that a commune must be about ‘free love’ and that everyone would be swapping partners. That doesn’t happen, but for me it was the other absence that was telling. Reviewers refer to this group of ‘leftists’, but actually there is very little discussion of politics as such and little sense of political activity. I tend to agree with something else that I read, that this script might have been better developed into a TV drama series (or, at the least, into a longer film). Perhaps then some of the stories about the other characters might have been developed further.

I did enjoy watching the film. Vinterberg and Lindholm are too experienced and professional to fail to make a film like this watchable and Thomsen and Dyrholm are very good. Trine Dyrholm in particular makes a viewing experience worthwhile. She always gives everything she’s got. It’s good to see the 1970s too. I liked the decade and its political struggles. I guess we smoked too much, but the clothes were comfortable.