I Am REN (Jestem REN)

Poland (2020) Dir. Piotr Ryczko 

Not everyone is directly responsible for their actions. Mental illness has a habit of making us behave against character, the struggle extending beyond us to our families too. Pin pointing the exact root of the problem isn’t always easy – trauma can lead to loss of memory. If the situation is that bad, is getting those memories back worth the risk?

The Wirskirska family – Jan (Marcin Sztabinski), Renata (Marta Król), and their son Kamil (Olaf Marchwicki) – enjoy a peaceful life at their remote lake house. One day, Jan returns home from work to find the house completely trashed, a distressed Kamil on the floor, and Renata heavily bruised and hiding in the shed. Neither can explain what happened other than Renata suggesting she had a breakdown.

But not a normal breakdown – Renata a REN android, and under normal circumstances once they develop a fault, they are decommissioned and replaced. However, Jan refuses to let Renata go and instead takes her to a psychological retreat to get answers, but Renata starts to wonder who she can trust, refusing to believe everyone, including her own mind.

Mental health is a prevalent issue in modern society yet one many still don’t seem to understand. It is also a handy character trait in fiction for the protagonist or antagonist, to justify either their villainous actions or to rain misery and suffering on them. This puts the onus on writers and filmmaker to show sensitivity in their depiction of the condition and how it affects the characters.

Piotr Ryczko, in his debut, adapts his own novel I Am Ren, and the dedication of this film to his mother would imply he based this on her experiences; if not, the idea of how women are treated was informed by her life. The latter aspect of the film won’t be so obvious – I must confess, reading a snippet of an interview with Ryczko alerted me to the fact this was an unintentional feminist parable of sorts.

Ryczko’s main intention is to remove the stigma of people suffering from mental health issues which begets judgement as to what sort of person they may be. Renata is almost a too perfect movie wife – cooking for her husband, keeping a tidy home, enjoying time with him and Kamil, with whom she bonds over astronomy. This idyllic, wish-fulfilment male fantasy doesn’t just reek of cheesiness, it telegraphs the disruption that is lurking around the corner.

Except the exact details of what happened remains vague for the majority of the film – we are not even shown the act itself, just the aftermath. It is preceded by an error alarm appearing on the side of a kitchen unit, and a shot of Renata’s bare back, her shoulders shifting uneasily under her scarred, blotchy skin. With her gamine figure, we infer the possibility of her being an alien or drugs but can’t commit our suspicions to either.

Whatever we think is confounded soon after when maintenance men arrive and advise Jan to send Renata back and exchange her for a new model before she does any further damage. So it is confirmed that Renata is an android, but with so many questions this raises about her ability to love like human, not to mention Jan and Kamil’s bond with Renata, the conceit is whether this is really true or not.

I will leave you guessing, unlike Ryczko who reveals all in the final act with a twist no doubt will be of little surprise to anyone, and even then, having been misled for this far into the film, we can’t really trust what we see anymore. The important thing is that the horrors that plague sufferers of mental illness are not trivialised or sensationalised for our entertainment; Ryczko even avoids the temptation of employing levity, maybe due to Park Chan-Wook having already done this with I’m A Cyborg…But That’s Okay, an easy film to compare this one with thematically.

During her time at the resort, Renata meets a female psychologist and fellow android the cynical Ela (Marieta Zukowska), advising Renata not to trust anyone. She offers to hack into Renata’s memories to find the truth but Renata is reluctant, frightened of what she might find. Ela’s role is soon apparent – but is she a McGuffin or a red herring? Just another layer of confusion and misdirection thrown at us.

Lost in the mix is why Kamil refuses to disclose what happened, though it isn’t loyalty to Renata as he keeps his distance from her. Because the film runs for just 75-minutes, there is so much about the details surrounding the incident, the home life of the family, and their personalities that aren’t explored. It leaves the world Renata lives in as big a mystery as the incident, but goes a long way into making Renata an enigma, or more accurately a conundrum, to figure out.

Usually, we think of androids as being made of computer parts and lacking in emotion, but aside from a barcode on her foot, Renata looks 100% human. Fortunately, Marta Król’s performance is nuanced, delicate, and captivating, suffused with a sense of manic paranoid and ethereal frailty making her both dangerous and sympathetic. Just like the central mystery, Król doesn’t give anything away, adding so much to our perception of where the story is going.

For a film which such a short run time, I Am REN still moves slowly, and its mood is cold and sterile, like a dystopian sci-fi film with very little sci-fi beyond the idea the perfect woman can be bought like any other domestic commodity. It could have said a lot more about mental health but addresses it enough to make the concept work around it.

A thoughtful if often distant debut nonetheless and a good foundation for Ryczko to build his film making career on, as long as he spends less time trying to emulate Tarkovsky and more time finding his own voice.