Why this might not seem so easy
Apart from the recent films of Pawel Pawlikowski, much interesting contemporary Polish cinema remains under-seen beyond the country’s own borders. One consistent exception, though, has been the work of Małgorzata Szumowska, whose films have gained wide attention pretty much since the start of her career, featuring at major festivals and always securing international distribution.
Born in 1973, Szumowska is an alumna of both Kraków’s Jagiellonian University, where she studied art history, and Łódź’s famed film school. It was at the latter that she met Michał Englert, her close collaborator as co-screenwriter and cinematographer ever since. A selection of short films – including Silence (1998), an observational portrait of a rural farming family that was voted one of the best shorts in the school’s history – soon revealed her as a valuable new voice, particularly during a period when Polish cinema was not in its healthiest state, prior to the establishment of the Polish Film Institute in 2005.
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While a focus on intimate relationships, family and community dynamics, sexuality, mortality, loss and care have been constants, Szumowska’s work has been restless in terms of style and subject matter, making it excitingly hard to pigeonhole. Her film school productions already veered between surrealism and documentary, and her impressionistic cinema has retained its contradictory qualities. It’s by turns direct and discreet; rooted in daily reality, but alert to the numinous; Poland-specific yet able to connect internationally. Indeed, her work has received its most mixed receptions in her home country, where it’s been highly praised but also dismissed by some as intellectually mediocre or even kitsch.
Her films can be sensuous or coolly reserved. Sometimes an in-your-face handheld aesthetic dominates; at others the mood is detached and dispassionate. She has addressed social topics, but the approach is seldom straightforward, reflecting her disdain for ‘journalistic’ cinema and her favouring of symbol and metaphor. A vein of wry, dark humour is invariably present.
The best place to start – Body
Awarded the Berlin Silver Bear for direction, Body (2015) exhibits all the best qualities of Szumowska’s cinema, especially its confounding manipulations of mood. What starts out looking like a police procedural morphs into a drama focused on the interaction between a widowed prosecutor, his anorexic teenage daughter and the therapist who believes that the prosecutor’s dead wife is trying to make contact.
Szumowska fills the frames with diverse bodies, and the dead seem to mingle with the living. Funny, moving and unsettling, this assured exploration of attitudes to loss and corporeality also provides a good example of the director’s distinctive use of music. The use of both ‘Śmierć w bikini’ (‘Death in Bikini’) by the iconic Polish rock band Republika (which scores a bare-breasted dance performed by veteran actress Ewa Dalkowska) and Gerry & The Pacemakers’ ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ goes some way toward indicating the unique mix of tones here.
What to watch next
This year’s Polish Film Festival in Gdynia was notable for bestowing awards on two films centralising gay characters, Piotr Domalewski’s Hyacinth and Łukasz Ronduda and Łukasz Gutt’s Fears – a significant gesture in a country in which LGBTQ+ people can still feel scapegoated by government statements and policies. Both films have an important forebear in Szumowska’s Teddy Award-winning In the Name Of (2013), which examines a Catholic priest’s recognition of his sexuality following his transfer from Warsaw to a country village.
Shot in inviting warm tones, by turns painterly and vérité rough, this was a pioneering film for Poland, and one whose reference points often seem more English than anything else, with the film evoking Victim (1961), Priest (1994) and Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell. Viewed reductively as ‘the gay Catholic priest movie’, the film actually offers a more abstract, existential inquiry into masculinity and loneliness, and one that, refreshingly, rejects what would seem to be an inevitable tragic trajectory for an altogether cheekier conclusion. At the centre is a startlingly sensitive and robust performance from Andrzej Chyra, which allows us to see all the contours of his character’s conflicted soul.
Never Gonna Snow Again (2020) is a good place to head next: Szumowska’s latest film could be considered a companion to Body in its incorporation of a character with special powers. Here a Russian-speaking Ukrainian masseur (Alec Utgoff) proves that he truly has magic hands as he attends to the wealthy inhabitants of a gated community outside Warsaw. Part social satire, part spiritual drama (and full of memorable dogs), this is a wonderfully surprising, rich but accessible film, with the compelling Utgoff (Stranger Things) more than holding his own alongside a cast of regular Szumowska performers.
2018’s Mug also offers an engaging exploration of community dynamics. Set in a small Polish town where the construction of a statue of Jesus – “bigger than the one in Rio!” – is underway (the town is based on Świebodzin in western Poland, which is indeed home to such a statue), the film focuses on the reactions to the metalhead protagonist, Jacek, after he undergoes a face transplant following a workplace accident. Controversial for its broad perspective on the Polish province, Mug boasts much humour and a stealthy tender side.
Where not to start
Some of Szumowska’s earlier features are less immediately appealing than her later work. The best of them, Stranger (2004), is an intermittently affecting portrait of a young woman coming to terms with her pregnancy, while her debut, Happy Man (2000), is a witty but grim take on male malaise boasting an all-too-ironic title. Although undoubtedly a breakthrough in that it won the Special Jury Prize at Locarno, 33 Scenes from Life (2008) is also not a great introduction. This tale of a young wife reacting unexpectedly to a series of personal and professional upheavals is too personal and hermetic to be a welcoming entry point.
The two films that Szumowska has made abroad aren’t the place to begin, either. The stronger of the two, made in France, is Elles (2011), which stars Juliette Binoche as a journalist researching an article about sex workers and forging bonds with her two interviewees that go beyond the professional to pass through maternal, sisterly and erotic registers. Meanwhile, 2019’s The Other Lamb, filmed in Ireland, offers a yet more extreme take on male/female power relations, focusing on a patriarchal religious cult presided over by Michiel Huisman’s ‘Shepherd’.
Szumowska’s new project will take her beyond Polish borders once again: Infinite Storm, starring Naomi Watts, is a US-set survival drama that’s due for release next year.
Never Gonna Snow Again is in cinemas now. It had its UK premiere at the 2020 BFI London Film Festival.
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