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A family gathering starts tense, turns messy and ends up downright apocalyptic in Polish writer-director Jagoda Szelc’s atmospheric but unbearably overwrought debut feature Tower. A Bright Day (Wieza. Jasny dzien). And yes, the title is punctuated by a period rather than a colon, the first part appearing at the beginning of the film — among credits which paradoxically warn that what we’re about to see is “based on future events” — the second at the end. What falls between is similarly mannered and arch, a work which shows occasional flashes of talent on various fronts but is ultimately a hollow rehash of well-worn stylistic tropes.
According to Polish critics, however, Szelc is not just the next big thing from the country but a major new voice in European cinema. Time will tell. Tower won Best Debut and Best Screenplay when premiering at the national film festival in Gdynia last fall, and then bowed internationally in the Berlinale’s Forum. Further festival engagements will doubtless follow for a picture whose domestic opportunities — Polish release is set for March 23 — may be hampered by the fact that the cast almost entirely comprises unknowns. They all cope well with the limitations of the two-dimensional screenplay; and whatever stylistic excesses weigh down the movie are no fault of theirs.
Sound designer Kacper Habisiak has been given particularly unfortunate license, repeatedly amping up audio effects to a distracting, cumulatively counterproductive degree. The prevailing tone of dread-soaked ominousness is established from the very opening seconds, when overhead shots of city housing projects at night are accompanied by a droning score from composer Teoniki Rozynek that recalls the work of the late Johann Johannsson. The camera follows the progress of one particular car out into the countryside, a scene-setting sequence that tips its hat firmly in the direction of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.
This is just the first of numerous directorial homages and borrowings from Szelc, whose directorial toolbox proves disappointingly limited. And her various flashy flourishes are insufficient to compensate for the fundamental weaknesses in her screenplay. At the story’s heart is the thorny relationship between 30-something sisters Mula (Anna Krotoska) and Kaja (Malgorzata Szczerbowska) — the former having raised the latter’s daughter Nina (Laila Hennessy) as her own, presumably because of Kaja’s mental instability.
The pair are reunited after a long estrangement when Kaja is invited to Mula’s country house to celebrate Nina’s first holy communion. The hypertense Mula lays down certain ground rules immediately: Nina is not to find out that Kaja is her mom; Kaja is to “act normal.” That proves easier said than done, as Kaja operates on a dreamy, ethereal plane, super-attuned to her environments and very possibly schizophrenic.
Her heightened sensitivity is expressed by the sound design in conjunction with Przemyslaw Brynkiewicz’s limpid widescreen cinematography, which conjures the particular moods of the Polish countryside in late May across sun-kissed days and nights of deep shadow. But while the camerawork often yields striking images, it’s often executed with a distracting self-consciousness: Szelc often deploys very slight zooms in an attempt to boost intensity, instead endowing proceedings with a small-screen vibe.
Long-simmering family tensions manifest themselves in low-level bickering and the occasional full-blown row; there are hints that the wider world is drifting alarmingly out of joint. A TV report carries breaking news that the Dalai Lama has died; the local priest (Artur Krajewski, the most experienced performer in the cast) seems afflicted by crippling spiritual and physical malaise. Only Mula’s live-wire dog Taxi (Rayo) seems immune from the psychological turbulence that steadily spreads like a virus, building to a grand-guignol climax that sees Tower decisively tip into horror terrain.
Along the way Szelc opportunistically throws in a sub-sub-plot about a mid-eastern refugee being pursued across the area by the authorities; this is minor background noise among the Sturm und Drang of Mula’s and Kaja’s roller-coaster relationship, their unspoken battle for Nina’s affections. These scenes give the two actresses plenty to chew on, but Szelc never gets a proper handle on her material or finds a way to satisfyingly mesh the micro and the macro. The final act marks a bathetic retreat into confusing, frustrating ambiguity — it’s hard to know what’s going on by this stage, even harder to care.
Production company: Indeks Film Studio (with Centrala, Dreamsound, EBH, Heliograf, Indeks Film Studio, Odra Film, Skola Filmowa w Lodzi)
Cast: Anna Krotoska, Malgorzata Szczerbowska, Rafal Cieluch, Laila Hennessy, Rafal Kwietniewski, Dorota Lukasiewicz-Kwietniewska, Anna Zubrzycki, Artur Krajewski
Director-screenwriter: Jagoda Szelc
Producer: Marcin Malatynski
Co-producers: Rafal Bubnicki, Agata Golanska, Kacper Habisiak, Agnieszka Janowska, Andrzej Jedrzejewski, Maciej Ostoja-Chyzynski
Cinematographer: Przemyslaw Brynkiewicz
Production designer: Natalia Giza
Costume designer: Paulina Sieniarska
Editor: Anna Garncarczyk
Composer: Teoniki Rozynek
Sound designer: Kacper Habisiak
Venue: Berlinale (Forum)
Sales: Media Move, Warsaw, Poland (firstname.lastname@example.org)
No rating, 106 minutes
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