Monday, December 12, 2016

AFI’s EU Showcase ’16: United States of Love

Anyone who has seen Kieslowski’s Dekalog understands there were eight million stories in the naked Polish Communist-era housing complex. Naked is indeed an apt description, physically and emotionally for these three women. Each are pining for unattainable objections of desire in Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love (trailer here), which screens during the AFI’s 2016 EU Film Showcase.

It is 1990. Communism has just fallen, but the architecture still sucks. Things should be looking up, but love only brings torment and humiliation for these women. Agata is married to Jacek, but she pines for the new, relatively young priest recently assigned to their parish. It is making the business of their daughter’s confirmation unnecessarily awkward and playing havoc with their marriage.

Neighboring Iza is a secondary school principal, who assumes the death of her secret lover’s wife means their affair will finally become legit. However, much to her surprise, the doctor breaks off their relationship, using his daughter Wiola, a pupil, as an excuse. Like Glen Close in Fatal Attraction, she does not take his rejection lying down. In fact, matters get decidedly ugly.

In the spare moments when Iza is not acting obsessively stalkerish, she involuntarily retires Renata, a senior Russian teacher, who happens to be carrying a torch for Agata’s younger sister Marzena. The former beauty pageant contestant and aspiring fashion model happens to be married, but her husband is way out of the picture in West Germany, where he has rather amazingly found gainful employment. To get close to Marzena, Renata will resort to a number of petty ruses, but nobody will win their heart’s desire, least of all the objectified Marzena.

These three (or rather four) women’s stories are as grim as the concrete building they live in. Technically, the Communist era is over, but everyone is still clearly programmed to be distrustful, standoffish, and just generally wretched. Of course, it is impossible to watch States of Love without getting Dekalog flashbacks. Wasilewski even incorporates one of its most depressing plot points (from Dekalog One). Yet, Kieslowski gave viewers a wider range of emotions and occasionally maybe even a glimmer of hope, whereas Wasilewski is unremittingly bleak.

Nevertheless, the film is a showcase of bravely vulnerable and revealing performances from all four central women. Wasilewski gives them no place to hide, putting their characters through emotional wringers and often stripping them bare. Marta Nierardkiewicz is probably the most heartrending as the too trusting Marzena, while Magdalena Cielacka is the most chilling as Iza. Arguably, Dorota Kolak gives the most fully dimensional performance as Renata. The men also deserve credit for not allowing their characters become mere battle-of-the-sexes caricatures, particularly Andrzej Chyra as the heart-sick, guilt-ridden doctor.

States of Love was lensed by Romanian master cinematographer Olg Mutu, who shot Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which should cue viewers to expect a distinctive look and a depressing tone. It is a serious work of film, but a somewhat unbalanced exercise in auteurist cruelty towards Wasileski’s character creations. It is also a real downer. Recommended for cineastes who enjoy wallowing in miserablism (they are out there), United States of Love screens this Wednesday (12/14) and Saturday (12/17), as part of the AFI’s annual EU Film Showcase.