‘It won’t be easy’, warned writer-director Jagoda Szelc before her second film began, which was possibly an example of what she later referred to as her as her ‘dry humour’ – does anyone go to the Polish Film Festival expecting uncomplicated fun and games? Not that you might not get it, but it probably wouldn’t be the first place you’d look.
In Monument a group of would-be hotel staff suffer an internship in a grim establishment overseen by a draconian woman (Dorota Lukasiewicz-Kweitniewska) who sets the tone by handing them name badges with only two names on them – ‘Pawel’ for the boys and ‘Ania’ for the girls. It seems that ‘the customer’ does not want to be troubled by the notion that they might really exist in their own right.
Initially told that they will gain experience in every area of the trade, they then find themselves stuck in the assignments they were originally given, at which point the atmosphere (bolstered by the ominous soundtrack) grows increasingly claustrophobic and sinister.
A woman nursing an elderly invalid seems compelled to interrogate, even torture, her unforthcoming charge; a man succumbs to a strange fever; the kitchen workers are unable to face preparing the meat; and a woman forces herself to spend time in a rat-infested basement that clearly terrifies her. Meanwhile its hard to say whether the students’ designation of their manager as ‘a witch’ is just the standard underling’s resentment of authority or if it contains a dark kernel of truth.
Although some of the experiences that befall the students are more benign, or seemingly benign, there is a sense of a succession of private hells evolving, ably conveyed by the cast. And if at times it feels a bit like an actor’s workshop, in a way it is – this is the ‘diploma film’ of drama students from the Lodz Film School.
The various ‘stories’ resolve themselves in a kind of ritual, led by the ‘witch’, that also brings the drama workshop somewhat to mind. At the centre of it is the fever-struck man though whether this ceremony is intended to kill or cure him is not immediately apparent – in fact it’s both, sort of, because although the man does seem to recover it turns out (SPOILER ALERT) that everyone is already dead, the bus that was taking them to the hotel at the start of the film having crashed, killing most of the passengers.
Any disappointment at the use of such a familiar horror trope is offset by (a.) surprise at the appearance of an explanation of any kind and (b.) an awareness that this opens up resonances from the preceding scenes rather than just closing possibilities down. ‘It’s banal, but it doesn’t break anything’, is Szelc’s own assessment of what we might, at the risk of being vulgar, call the twist ending. Certainly it’s possible to imagine watching the film again and getting more out of it (as the BFI’s Helen de Witt, hosting the Q&A, apparently has).
So although it has a slightly haphazard air about it, Szelc’s film works on a number of levels – it’s interested in the way people construct authority, it’s an effectively eerie mystery, and it also performs a specific function in that it simultaneously celebrates and commiserates the cast’s departure from the Lodz School and their movement into another kind of life (the closing credits bid the students ‘RIP’, which made me think for a moment that they really did die in a bus crash).
I did also wonder if the film describes the sheer hell of making a film under the direction of Jagoda Szelc, for all that she insists that she is like a ‘mother hen’ with her actors – or even because of that very insistence – but she seems pleasant enough.
She certainly has a vision – the images here have an impressive stark clarity (courtesy of cinematographer Przemyslaw Brynkiewicz), and the pacing and atmosphere conjure a muted, building panic. Normally with anything like this I can expect the spectre of David Lynch to start asserting itself, but this is far less murky, despite the subdued palate, and instead it’s Kafka and Beckett that haunt the film – or at least my mind while I am watching it.
Like Isabella Eklöf, director of London Film Festival highlight Holiday, Szelc is remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental about her work, and gets away with statements that might otherwise have sounded pretentious, such as that she doesn’t make films ‘for an audience’ (because, as she quite reasonably points out, she doesn’t know them personally) and even that films have a ‘genetic code’, meaning – if I understood her correctly – that films choose the people who make them rather than the reverse, which makes perfect sense to me. I think.
Apparently the Poles consider Szelc to be the next big thing in world cinema. The world has yet to deliver its verdict, but as one inhabitant of it I offer a hesitant thumbs-up – unfortunately I missed Szelc’s debut, Tower. A Bright Day, also showing at this year’s Kinoteka, but I definitely intend to be in the audience of the next film that lets her direct it.