The year is 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the dissolution of the USSR. This brand new post soviet era doesn’t only provide wonderful muted colors, austere landscapes and architecture, visually stunning winter scenes but also reflects a period of immense change. Director Thomas Wasilewski almost successfully presents how these changes play out in the lives of four women and their inner world in a transitional period in recent Polish history.
The film starts with Agata; married with a teenage daughter she possesses an unassuming natural beauty. Her beauty is rather icy; blonde hair, translucent skin, you never see her smile. Played masterfully by Julia Kijowska; Agata is deeply unhappy, stuck in an unwanted marriage, rebuffing her doting husband at every possible corner; dismissing him, undermining him, continuously rejecting his sexual advances. Instead she develops an intense, crush on the local priest. There are subtle hints that the priest is aware of her feelings, but nothing is ever said. Agata is excited but at the same time disturbed by her own feelings. We see Agata showing up at his residency, spying on him having a shower Perhaps the priest is a welcomed distraction to her boredom or may even represent the forbidden, the unattainable; there is no chance of an affair happening and therefore her crush is safe.
We see no resolution to Agata’s conundrum as the story swiftly and abruptly shifts focus on to Iza, a chain smoking headmistress at the local school. Played by Magdalena Cielecka, Iza is perhaps a more severe, desperate individual. Living her life as the other woman for over six years to Karol, who we are introduced to at his wife’s funeral. Just when Iza thought her relationship with Karol would be officially starting, he decides to end it. Driven to the brink of madness, Iza becomes unhinged, spiraling out of control, dying to get Karol back. She shows up at his flat uninvited; confides to his oblivious daughter about their affair and a furious Karol shows up at her flat and brutally punchs her in the face. In return, Iza accidentally kills Karol’s daughter instead. Whether her death is intentional or not, Wasilewski does not tell us and instead he once again changes the focus on to Renata.
Renata is a quirky older lady, who lives alone with an unusual company of numerous tropical birds amongst a plethora colorful tropical plants in her living room. Renata works as a teacher at Iza’s school and develops a crush on the dance teacher, Marzena, who also her neighbour. Whether the crush is sexual we are unsure as Wasilewski hints to Renata’s sexuality in a very oblique manner. Maybe Renata’s crush is of the school girl kind, where its more an aspirational desire rather than a sexual one. Or perhaps like Agata, Marzena provides a pleasant to distraction. Marzena kindly indulges Renata’s subtle advances and attention seeking; innocently looking at the relationship as purely platonic; unaware of Renata’s deep emotional investment in it.
Marzena’s screen time is much more brief in comparison. The younger sister of Iza she is a former pageant beauty and perhaps the lack of modelling opportunities at the time of her crowning, she opted to become a dance teacher instead. In the film’s final scenes, we get a glimpse of Marzena’s residual modelling ambitions when she falls into a trap of a dodgy photographer who comes round to her house to take picture but instead spikes her drink and molests her.
The residential apartment block, the swimming pool, the school building, the barren snowy landscapes; they are so banal and ordinary but yet so aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Everything is brushed with an understated gorgeous charcoal, grey and dirty-white colors, emblematic of the 90s post-modern photography and film; specifically, that grungy, deconstructed feel of the time. Reminding of work by photographers such as Corrine Day, Jürgen Teller, Terry Richardson but also film makers such as Jane Campion and Larry Clark.
The film however lacks a certain cohesiveness; the blending of the stories with each other is clumsy. Wasilewski chose to have four concise stories, four perspectives that are related and separate at the same time. This proves challenging when one we see one character as the focal point in one scene and then they almost disappear becoming an extra in another. It may not have been so problematic if there was more overlap between the stories and characters. Furthermore, Agata’s story strand which was given particular length proved a little boring at points, mostly due to the fact that we didn’t know what Agata’s real issues where. Was it her crush on the priest? her unhappy marriage? a mid-life crisis? We don’t get the real cause of her sadness, leaving viewers unable to sympathize and then Wasilewski chooses to end the story with very little explanation.
All four actresses are of a very high caliber; we get a sense of each of their character instantly; showcasing their excellence at what they do. Wasilewski paints stunning, if bleak filmic scenes which are breathtaking and also has a great ability to present detailed complete characters. However, when it comes to the plot he leaves too much to the viewers discretion; there are numerous hints to things but very little clear facts. He provides no answers to the countless questions that he poses. The film though is highly watchable and the characters are its greatest pull; focusing in on more on the pathos and rejection that their love brings; just like the monotone landscapes and buildings, it is a bleak view of the human condition.
The film is highly watchable and the characters are its greatest pull