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.