Sunday, 15 March 2009

33 Scenes from Life (33 Sceny z Życia)

Małgorzata Szumowska’s latest film, 33 Scenes from Life (IMDb entry here), made an impressive, if claustrophobic opener for the seventh Kinoteka Film Festival.

It begins with a family meal including Jerzy, a journalist, his author-wife Barbara, their artist-daughter Julia and Piotr, her composer-husband. They gently rib each other though there’s a serious undertow and we might think we know where the story’s going. But we’re blindsided when Barbara gets cancer and dies. Shortly afterwards, Jerzy has a fatal heart attack and Julia, having lost both parents, is forced to reappraise her life and work with her husband, her sister, and artistic collaborator Adrian.

33 Scenes is impressively photographed, using a muted palette and, mostly in medium shots. Going for a documentary style meant no blocking – the actors improvise and the camera follows them: hence no close-ups, though the initial idea to shot each scene, Woyzeck-like, in a single take was soon abandoned. One great shot sums up the gradual clarification of the emotional maze. Half-obscured by the doorframe, Julia sits on the bathroom floor talking to Adrian on the phone, but when Piotr enters the scene we gradually work out that what we're actually seeing is partially reflected in a mirror, with the doorways and reflections slightly confused. It adds to the oppressive atmosphere, which is lightened (if that’s the word), by touches of the darkest imaginable comedy.

But most formally surprising are several long musical interludes by Paweł Mykietyn. Acting the part of Piotr’s new orchestra piece, they make one of most impressive and uncompromising film scores I’ve heard for a long time. Though it begins with a semi-impressionistic falling theme dominated by the harp – perhaps inspired by Julia (Peter reveals it in the bedroom during a tenderly comic bedroom scene) – we soon get a Schonbergian variation, and the music continues to intensify: dark, grinding, dissonant, roaring and occasionally rearing up terrifyingly, like something from the 1960s Polish avant-garde. Against such music, shots of the orchestral rehearsals seemed banal and so, pending another idea, they were removed and replaced by black leader. When one of the German producers saw it, he thought they should remain. And so they do, like operatic interludes, bleeding slightly into the surrounding scenes, or even the diegetic, as when the obsessive xylophone is taken over by a bleak oscilloscope. The combination of music and blank screen allow us to contemplate what we’ve just seen and prepares us for the continuation.

As for the title: yes the script originally had 33 scenes but during editing that changed and Szumowska now doesn’t know how many there are. It began as an autobiographical sketch – her father was journalist/film-maker Maciej Szumowska about whom she made the documentary Mój tata Maciej (2005) and her mother the children’s writer Dorota Terakowska. This all proved controversial in Poland, though Szumowska insists that there isn’t a strict 1-to-1 relationship between reality and the film. Perhaps the original idea of doing the film in English would have helped the separation (or perhaps made it more controversial as her parents were quite well known) but in the event she decided that it was a very Polish film that would only work in that language.

Casting Julia was problematic: Polish actresses recognized the autobiographical elements and assumed that they would be playing some form of the director – exactly what she didn’t want! Eventually she saw what she wanted in the German actress Julia Jentsch in Sophie Scholl. Not speaking Polish, she learned the role phonetically and was dubbed, as was the Dane Peter Gantzler as Adrian. But, demanding more direction, Jentsch clashed with Szumowska several times on set, even threatening to leave the film. Fortunately she stuck it out, though they parted on very bad terms. Happily, when she saw the final edit Jentsch was delighted with the result and the two are reconciled.

I won't bother embedding the trailer that's on Youtube as it completely misrepresents the film, so here's part one of Paweł Mykietyn's Cello Sonata instead - you can click through to part two afterwards. Not as dense as 33 Scenes' score and there's not much to see, but enough to make me want to hear more.

Finally, with many East European films, it’s violently pro-smoking: as Szumowska says; “if I want to commit suicide by smoking, that’s my business.”

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