United States Of Love (Zjednoczone stany milosci)

Poland (2016) Dir. Tomasz Wasilewski

Don’t be fooled by the title, this isn’t a paean to the Peace and Love ideal of the 1960’s. This challenging third film from Polish auteur Tomasz Wasilewski is hardly a barrel of laughs and certainly doesn’t propose to offer any peaceful resolutions to the scenarios explored here.

Truth be told, love is hardly on the agenda here – lust and obsession are the driving forces that “unite” the individuals under scrutiny. Four women in 1990’s Poland are all missing something in their lives and it revolves, tenuously and explicitly, around acts of a libidinous nature, and not always reciprocal either.

Presented in a loose portmanteau structure, each lady has her own arc with a vague continuity, making congruent cameo appearances in the other’s story as incidental background characters. This isn’t as cheap a gimmick as it sounds, potentially forcing a rewatch for the less observant viewer.

Opening with a dinner party introducing three of the four ladies, the host is aerobics and dance instructor Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz), while guests include her head teacher sister Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) and neighbours Agata (Julia Kijowska) and Jacek (Lukasz Simla). It is Agata we are concerned with first, a bored mother and housewife obsessed with the local priest (Tomasz Tyndyk).

Agata follows the priest around, spies on him and contrives opportunities to be in his presence, yet suffers from not being able to hold him; conversely she finds the idea of being touched by Jacek repellent but takes out her sexual frustrations on him, rebuking him afterwards. Sex for them is intense and feral but soulless and ultimately functional for the wrong reasons. Agata promptly disappears after her arc with nothing close to a resolve even hinted at.

Meanwhile Iza, the elegantly presented school principal is engaged in a six-year affair with doctor Karol (Andrzej Chyra), but when his wife dies, Iza wants to go public with their relationship; Karol however decides he cannot be with Iza anymore for the sake of his daughter. Belying her calm and controlled appearance, Iza takes this rejection badly, her actions serving to push Karol away from her.

Iza’s arc gets the bulk of the screen time as the middle portion of the film and the only one in which the old adage about taking two to tango actually applies. There is no sympathetic character in this chapter although Wasilewski boldly tries to persuade us to look for shades of grey in this affair, bringing out the worst in both as desperation sets in. For Iza, a particularly rude awakening awaits as her self-esteem hits its lowest ebb.

Finally, Renata (Dorota Kolak), a senior teacher at Iza’s school, shares her story with her neighbour across the way, Marzena. It isn’t made apparent on first viewing but the older women has a stalker-like crush on the former beauty queen and aspiring model. Because of her age, Iza forces Renata to retire giving her more time to satiate her fixation on Marzena.

Renata is not above manipulation and deceit to get Marzena’s attention, proving fruitful at first but Marzena is missing her husband who is stuck in Germany, tending to drink her woes away. This leads to an unpleasant experience for Marzena but a win-lose result for Renata.

Of the three stories, this one is the quirkiest of the lot, largely through Renata’s eccentricities, such as her collection of songbirds she allows to fly about her apartment while she carries on as normal as they dive-bomb her dinner table. Then again, in lieu of her crush on Marzena never being explained, this entire notion reads like a macabre fantasy from which no good can come.

Taken this into account, of all the antagonists Renata does come closest to engendering compassion from the audience, beyond losing her job, being the only one who is truly lonely and without a partner to cheat on. Her obsessive actions cannot be justified but we can’t help but admire her moxie when she sneaks into the leisure centre to spy on Marzena holding a water aerobics class.

It is actually rather difficult to explain how and why this film works without breaking down each scenario and exploring every detail in a forensic manner. So many variables not discussed here play important parts in shaping each story, and while open ended the final moments are also vital to understanding and appreciating what Wasilewski is trying to achieve.

For example, the film’s period setting following Poland’s liberation from Soviet rule in 1990 is best understood if you know your European history, presumably having some significance to the way the characters behave. Or perhaps this is a symbolic irony of the concept of freedom, the one thing the women don’t have, whether trapped in a loveless marriage or beholden to their unrequited and fruitless obsessions?

The visual presentation of the washed out colour palette, looking almost monochrome at first then gradually allows colour to seep into the frame as the film progresses, unquestionably suits the bleak tone and nature of the film, creating moments of stark austerity, frigid atmospherics and unsettling punctuation points.

Relying on past collaborators and other renowned names from Polish cinema, Wasilewski has assembled a top-notch cast of committed performers who clearly understood his vision better than I have. This is revealed in how they give themselves over to the director and lay themselves bare (figuratively and literally) in realising every aspect of their characters’ emotional complexities.

As fascinating and quietly compelling as Wasilewski’s films are, the often abstruse nature of his narrative leaves yours truly feeling a little dense and excluded from appreciating and understanding his mandate. In just three films, Wasilewski has already defined himself as a filmmaker who shares only what he wants to, leaving the audience to determine their own meanings.

Not always a bad thing but while United States Of Love is a potent and powerful film I’m left bothered by whether I fully got it or not.

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