Open, shut, open...
There’s always something that’s not quite right. Whether it’s an elevator door that keeps opening and closing on Julia Jentsch in 33 SCENES FROM LIFE (2008) or Juliette Binoche’s refrigerator door that won’t close in ELLES (2011), the doors in Małgorzata Szumowska’s films seem to have a life of their own, defying the protagonists as if to taunt them. In BODY (2015), too, our attention is drawn to a door at one point. Janusz, a district attorney, lives with his daughter Olga in an apartment in Warsaw. His wife, Helena, died six years ago. One day, the door leading to Helena’s old room is suddenly open, as if by magic. Olga’s therapist believes there’s a way to contact the girl’s deceased mother. Can she actually open a door to the afterlife by holding a séance?
He demanded that we free ourselves from the banality of journalism, that we not cling to realism as we’d cling to our mother’s apron, not be afraid of metaphors, and treat narrative as a ‘secondary consideration’.
On the threshold between life and death
Again and again, Małgorzata Szumowska’s work deals with death and mourning, addressing the way people deal with loss. A connection to her own life can certainly be inferred. She was born in Kraków in 1973 to writer Dorota Terakowska and journalist Maciej Szumowski. She grew up in their creative milieu, studied art history in Kraków, and completed a degree in film directing at the State Academy of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź. One of her instructors was Wojciech Has, a master of Polish cinema who had a profound influence on the way film was taught there.
Szumowska made short experimental and documentary films in Łódź, including BEFORE I DISAPPEAR, in which she gives a wedding the appearance of a funeral. The guests, dressed in black, dine and dance in a cottage until the bride, wreathed in flowers, floats on a lake like a corpse. In 1998 she completed her degree in Łódź and two years later, with the help of Wojciech Has, directed her first feature film. HAPPY MAN (2000) is the story of a man of about 30 who lives with his mother in a run-down neighborhood. When the mother becomes terminally ill, the son tries to fulfill her wish that he finally find a steady job and an attractive woman to spend his life with.
Małgorzata Szumowska amd Festival director Diana Iljine at Venice international film festival.
Already in this debut, a serious illness drives the plot in a fundamental way. Szumowska’s second motion picture, STRANGER (2004), is about a young woman of little means who unexpectedly becomes pregnant. As the fetus grows inside her, her father’s dementia worsens. For the role of the forgetful dad, she cast Marek Walczewski, who was himself seriously suffering from Alzheimer’s disease at the time of filming. A certain tendency to align herself with her own reality, and being unafraid of using cinematic metaphor as Has recommended, persists in Szumowska’s subsequent films.
In 33 SCENES FROM LIFE (2008), Julia must deal with her mother dying in the hospital, then, shortly thereafter, her father. In a similar way, Szumowska’s parents had both died within a short span of time in 2004. Szumowska kept a diary during this time and later reworked it into a screenplay consisting of 33 scenes. What is significant here is how the entire family deals with their grief in the film: they drown it out with hedonistic joie de vivre; even at the father’s funeral, there are light-hearted moments. Although there are problems at every turn (such as the elevator door), the cracks are cheerfully papered over.
Juliette Binoche in elles (2011)
The heart’s desire
In her early feature films, Szumowska revealed herself to be a close observer of the human psyche. “Małgorzata is good at recognizing universal qualities in all their little details,” screenwriter Tine Byrckel observed in an interview. French producer Marianna Slot had the idea for the film ELLES (2011) when she read an article about female students who took jobs as escorts. In search of a director, Slot and Byrckel happened to see 33 SCENES FROM LIFE and hired Małgorzata Szumowska. This was Szumowska’s debut as a director in the French-speaking world. She brought her longtime creative partner and onetime husband, Michał Englert, whom she’d met at film school in Łódź, along to the shoot in Paris. STRANGER marked the first time he was in charge of the visual composition; on later joint projects, starting with IN THE NAME OF (2013), he also took on the role of screenwriter and co-producer.
While researching ELLES, Szumowska was surprised at the self-confidence the young prostitutes displayed: “To be honest, I was shocked — shocked that such a beautiful and intelligent girl would find pleasure in sleeping with men for money.” In the film, Anne, a journalist, is fascinated in the same way by the stories of the women she interviews. It is not only the men who come off badly. Szumowska also views her heroine ironically as she conforms to prevailing standards of youth and beauty, tones her body to fitness videos, has to haggle over the length of her article with her editor on the phone — the journalist, too, sells her services — and breaks out of her role as a wife for just one night.
Following her sojourn in Paris, Szumowska returned to Poland and directed IN THE NAME OF (2013), a film that also revolves around sexual self-determination, but in a forceful way. Father Adam, a priest who is a counselor at a summer camp for juvenile delinquents, tries to keep his homosexuality a secret — until his interest in one of the young men becomes obvious. Szumowska criticizes the Catholic church’s mendacious system of solving a “problem” with a priest by transferring him to another parish whenever something happens. At the same time, she has found a leading actor in Andrzej Chyra who lets us visualize the priest’s inner conflict, which definitely wins the character some sympathy.
Waiting outside: Poland in transition
For IN THE NAME OF, Szumowska received a Teddy Award at the Berlinale in 2013. Two years later, also in Berlin, she was awarded the Silver Bear for BODY (2015), a tragicomedy in which she explores the way that grief imprints itself on the body. After the death of the wife/mother, the bodily form of the (now gluttonous) father and the (now anorexic) daughter changes. At the same time, through a therapist named Anna, another body comes into play: the massive body of a dog that has no reservations about eating, with whom Anna lives in her small apartment and even lies in bed at night. A longing for warmth, affection, and mutual empathy pervades the film, but Szumowska knows how to employ humor to head off any kitsch. Along the way, she paints a bleak picture of Warsaw, putting her characters in prefabricated buildings whose architecture constrains them but also frames them in windows or doors.
In her films, Szumowska repeatedly takes an uncompromising look at her homeland, depicting a Poland that leaned toward capitalism in 1989 after the fall of communism but somehow got stuck on the threshold. A scene of people waiting outside the sliding doors of a department store early in the morning is how MUG (2017) begins. As soon as the doors open, the crowd surges into the aisles, stripping down to their underwear to fight over cheap LCD televisions while “Christmas bargains for naked people” are announced over the loudspeakers. One of these people is Jacek, a heavy metal fan and construction worker, who will later experience firsthand the absurd way in which Catholicism can mix with the competitive ideology of capitalism.
A statue of Jesus is being constructed to overlook the provincial town of Świebodzin. When finished, it’ll be larger than the famous statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. When Jacek accidentally falls into the statue, he is badly disfigured. A face transplant largely corrects this, but Jacek must come to terms with the fact that his girlfriend has turned her back on him. In order to pay for the transplant, Jacek becomes the “new face” (or “mug”) of an advertising campaign, which turns his previously eager donors from the church congregation against him. Thus, in MUG, Szumowska exposes the bigotry of sanctimonious provincials and the exploitative mechanisms of a profit-oriented system.
Is there, then, a way to escape the dreariness, a way to rebel? Following her first English-language film, the horror movie THE OTHER LAMB (2019), about a woman who stands up to the male guru of an otherwise female cult, Szumowska went straight to her next project, NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN (2020). Along with Michał Englert, who not only co-wrote the screenplay, did the cinematography and co-produced the film, but also served as co-director for the first time, she shot the film in a real-life gated community in Warsaw. The face of this nouveau-riche biotope is basically a mask: all the houses look the same; only the doorbells ring differently. And look who’s ringing the bell: a masseur (Alec Utgoff) who is always let in because his hands can work miracles.
This film hints right at the beginning that this angel could also be a devil who uses hypnosis to take his clients on an inner journey to an idyllic natural setting — the forest appears again and again in Szumowska’s oeuvre as a magical place of retreat — but who could also carry them to the brink of death. Above all, though, Zhenia, from Ukraine, a land the Poles consider “exotic”, is a savior who brings relief to unhappy women and presents himself as an object of desire. Compared to other Szumowska films, NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN (2020) is a gentle, melancholy work that tells of a community in which people no longer know what happiness they’re actually dreaming of.
the Massage Therapist dances in Never gonna snow again.
Moving around to break free
For all her social criticism, Szumowska is interested in the desires of her main characters. She prefers to sympathize with outsiders who confront a rigid and strictly religious society and who are forced to come to terms with personal loss. A jammed elevator door is a kind of signal in this context; indeed, every door holds out the hope that at some point it’ll be possible to open one’s eyes to something new and perhaps have closure with the old. Moreover, these doors demarcate the scene and give it structure.
In total, Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Engler have found a compelling formula. The scenes in NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN are wonderfully composed, the imagery clear and brilliant. However, Szumowska repeatedly breaks up the structure of the narrative with moments that seem improvised. Her characters are allowed to break free, especially when they are moving around. Whether it’s Father Adam swaying drunkenly with a portrait of Pope John Paul II in IN THE NAME OF or Jacek playing air guitar to the sound of heavy metal in MUG, someone is usually dancing in Szumowska’s films. Even Zhenia puts on an elegant ballet performance at one point, pirouetting around the apartment of a client he has hypnotized. For a moment, the illegal immigrant from Ukraine takes control of a space that is not his. Even when two boys come through the front door, Zhenia isn’t fazed. He just keeps dancing while they watch him silently, like a movie.
FILMFEST MÜNCHEN will screen NEVER GONNA SNOW AGAIN, which was financed in part with prize money from the 2019 CineCoPro Award, as part of its tribute. The dates are Sunday, July 4 at 7 p.m. in the Carl-Orff-Saal and Friday, July 9 at 9:15 p.m. on the outdoor screen on the grounds of the Institut français with Małgorzata Szumowska attending. During the festival, MUBI will present a special online program called “Homage to Małgorzata Szumowska”, which will include the films ELLES (from July 2), BODY (from July 4) and MUG (from July 5). In addition, to celebrate its cooperation with FILMFEST MÜNCHEN, MUBI is offering a free 30-day trial subscription (register at: mubi.com/filmfest-muenchen).