Director: Tomasz Wasilewsi Starring: Julie Kijowska, Marta Nieradkiewicz, Magdalena Cielecka, Dorota Kolak Running Time: 104 minutes
The theme of the 2016 Kinopolis Polish Film Festival is love and the many faces that love can have. The opening film of this year’s festival, Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love sees love manifested in less heart-warming forms. It is unrequited, obsessive, absent. There is ice-cold irony at play in the film’s title, as it concerns four women living in Poland, with the Berlin Wall freshly fallen, struggling desperately to find something to make them feel whole. They do not find it. In the cold, harsh world Wasilewski presents, love is a many-saddened thing.
Following an opening at the dinner table that shows most of the film’s characters, a cramped shot of bustling conversation that handily establishes the historical context (the excitement of jeans, Fanta as an imported treat), Wasilewski mostly keeps his leads separated, progressing from one woman’s unhappy life to the next. Stern Agata (Julia Kijowska) is unhappily married and secretly lusting after the local priest. Well-dressed school principal Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) has been having an affair for years with the local doctor, but he’s gone cold on her following the death of his wife. She would, she claims, do anyhing for this aging and ambivalent man. Iza’s sister Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz) is a dance and aerobics instructor. Feeling lonely and insecure with her husband living in Berlin for work, she hopes to recapture her former glory as a beauty queen, with dire results. Rounding the cast out is Renata (Dorota Kolak), an old teacher recently forced into retirement by Iza, now forced to confront her abject lack of company (pet birds aside) and stew in her obsession with Marzena. They’re a sad, bitter and sad and bitter lot, who’s desperation to stave off the emptiness they feel leads them to act out to various levels of self-destructiveness.
It’s difficult to get an exact sense of Wasilewski’s view of these women. Certainly the desperate sadness of their stories implies sympathy, but for Agata, Iza, Renata and Marzena to go four-for-four on behaving ‘irrationally’ because of their feelings is a discouraging look. The film is marked by long stretches of silence, the camera often at a distance, never fully feeling like its getting into the heads of its leads. The constant just-behind-the shoulder shots of characters walking begins to create the frustrating sense that their point of view is always just out of reach, the characters turning their backs to revealing themselves to the audience. The men and women are nude very frequently, their longing and/or lustful looks are lingered on, yet United States of Love often feels too distant for viewers to fully embrace their vulnerability.
It should be said that though their storylines vary in quality, all four actresses are stellar. Though their behaviour is similar, each distinguishes themselves. Iza being relatively in the public eye as the school principal allows Cielecka to create the impression that she’s keeping it together the strongest, all the while her shaky smoker’s hands and closed demeanour give her away. She plays her lust as cracking while Kijowska plays hers as more frantic, boiling over. Kolak and Nieradkiewicz are both more innocent, but their age difference allows for varying degrees of naievety.
United States of Love is undoubtedly effective. Aiming to show love as self-destructive and crushing, it uses its four stories to do so thoroughly, with only Renata (the character the film has its clearest sympathy for) ending with something that isn’t all-encompassing despair. She still ends up alone of course, but she’s older than the others, more used to the unforgiving world of the United States of Love, which won’t be getting any more liberating for these women even as Poland leaves communism behind. After all those long pauses, the film closes by cutting suddenly on its youngest and most optimistic character in a moment where she is left humiliated and violated. It finally finds a speed to abandon her in her moment of need.(3 / 5)