‘Body’: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
An intriguing concept that starts off strong but is never fully fleshed out

Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska (‘Elles’) unveils her new feature in Berlin’s competition

Bodies old and young, oversized and undernourished, disemboweled and risen from the dead, are the subject of Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska’s dark dramedy, which premiered in competition at the Berlinale. Starring veteran actor Janusz Gajos (Three Colors: White) as a homicide prosecutor whose own life takes some rather mysterious turns, the movie is surprisingly lighter in tone than the director’s recent films Elles and In the Name of, but never builds into a fully engaging narrative. Additional fest play and Euro theatrical are where this Body will likely land.

In a dreary, rain-soaked Warsaw, an unnamed investigator (Gajos) visits grisly crime scenes, taking detailed notes on corpses subjected to all sorts of horrific things. He’s a man of science and hardly believes in miracles – although an opening scene, where a victim hanging from a tree suddenly comes back to life, offers a preview of what’s to come.

The prosecutor lives in a somber apartment with his 20-something daughter, Olga (Justyna Suwala), a girl with a severe eating disorder and an obvious disdain for her dad. We eventually learn that Olga’s mother passed away a few years ago, leaving her alone with a father incapable of affection or any sustained form of communication.

Another character is soon introduced in the form of Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), a therapist specializing in cases of bulimia and anorexia, but one with a curious side job: When she’s not conducting group sessions, Anna works as a psychic, receiving messages from the dead and transcribing them during fits of automatic writing.

The script by Szumowska and regular co-writer Michal Englert (who also shot and produced) uses dry comic vignettes to introduce each plotline, weaving them together when Olga is hospitalized and Anna becomes her therapist. Meanwhile, weird things start happening in the prosecutor’s apartment, and the creaking doors and leaking faucets seem to have something to do with his deceased spouse.

Szumowska already showed an interest in bodily abuses – especially of the female kind – in the prostitute drama Elles, and she tackles the theme here with more wit and variety, juxtaposing the mutilated cadavers of the murders with the scrawny frames of Anna’s therapy group, while highlighting two joyfully full figures in a scene where the prosecutor receives a rowdy naked dance from a middle-age lover (Ewa Dalkowska).

Yet while Body starts off promisingly, the contrasting plotlines wind up losing intensity as the story progresses: crimes remain unresolved or forgotten, serving mostly as backgrounds to the father-daughter relationship at the heart of the film. It’s not until very late in the game, when the trio joins hands for an extended overnight seance, that Szumowska manages to pull it all together, leading to an upbeat finale backed by a golden oldie from the aptly named Gerry & The Pacemakers.

Performances are strong from all three principals, and promising newcomer Suwala is especially memorable, even if Olga never develops much beyond the illness she bears. Expert cinematography by Englert (The Congress) captures the offbeat proceedings in fixed widescreen compositions that add to the movie’s overarching sense of solitude, in a place where the only salvation may lie in the chance of an out-of-body experience.

Production company: Nowhere
Cast: Janusz Gajos, Maja Ostaszewska, Justyna Suwala, Adam Woronowicz, Ewa Dalkowska
Director: Malgorzata Szumowska
Screenwriters: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert
Producers: Jacek Drosio, Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert
Executive producer: Lambros Ziotas
Director of photography: Michal Englert
Production designer: Elwira Pluta
Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska, Julia Jarza-Brataniec
Editor: Jacek Drosio
Casting director: Majka Skryskewicz
Sales agent: Memento Films International

No rating, 90 minutes