'Chemo' ('Chemia'): Karlovy Vary Review

Chemo - H 2015
Courtesy of Filmokracja

Chemo - H 2015

Finally! The terminal cancer rom-com is here.

Polish debutant director Bartek Prokopowicz draws on personal experience for this tragicomic romance about matrimony, motherhood and mortality.

Taking a light-hearted approach to dark subject matter, Chemo is a high-energy love story about lust for life in the shadow of death. Taking place in contemporary Warsaw, the dramatic set-up contains heavily autobiographical elements for cinematographer turned first-time feature director Bartek Prokopowicz, whose wife Magdalena died of cancer in 2012. A young mother who founded a cancer charity following her own diagnosis, Magdalena's story was previously the subject of Alina Mrowi?ska's 2009 documentary Magda, Love and Cancer.

Prokopowicz's kinetic, cartoonish, insistently manic tone feels uneven and heavy-handed in places, but Chemo still puts an agreeably bold and populist spin on some painfully personal material. Premiered at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival last week, this glossy-looking HBO Europe co-production feels sufficiently universal in theme and original in style to snag theatrical interest outside Poland. It opens domestically in October.

Lena (Agnieszka Zulewska) is a hot-headed blonde beauty who walks out of her glitzy Warsaw fashion job one day without explanation, smearing her retirement note across the boardroom window in lipstick. If Chemo was the splashy, zippy, John Hughes-directed 1980s rom-com that it sporadically resembles, quirky diva Lena would be played by Molly Ringwald. Obviously. Meanwhile, across town, morbidly depressive photographer Benek  (Tomasz Schuchardt) is already making plans to follow his suicidal father to an early grave, until a fateful collision with Lena gives him a reason to live.

Sexual tension sizzles, and soon these two emotionally volatile desperados are riotously rutting beneath a kitsch Catholic shrine and a dangling noose in Benek's black-painted bachelor pad. Romance blooms, music booms, sunshine blazes, the future looks fabulous. Then Lena drops the bombshell: she has breast cancer, is heading for a double mastectomy and possibly an early death. Benek proposes marriage, but Lena refuses, insisting she needs to fight the disease alone. She also shuns chemotherapy, on the basis that "suffering requires more courage than dying".

On both counts, Benek succeeds in changing Lena's mind. But after a whirlwind wedding and an unexpected pregnancy, the couple face a whole new level of moral dilemmas. Will the fetus survive the chemo treatment? Can Lena herself survive the pregnancy? Is it ethical to have a baby when you may not even live to see it reach early childhood? The film's fizzy tone turns sour here, from inspirational seize-the-day love story to prickly domestic melodrama. But while the ending of Chemo is never in doubt, there are some life-affirming revelations in the final act.

On a visual level, Chemo impresses. The director and his cinematographer brother Jeremiasz Prokopowicz, who has previously worked with Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda, turn Warsaw into a music-video wonderland of vivid colors and glamorous party people. Magical realism intrudes at times, as when soundtrack singer Natalia Grosiak appears on screen alongside Lena and Benek. Intermittent animated inserts by Nadia Micault depict Lena's internal battle with cancer in handsomely rendered, lightly psychedelic graphics.

Peppered with cameos by Polish cinema stalwarts, Chemo is an overstuffed, overlong, bumpy rollercoaster ride, both tonally and emotionally. Subtlety and nuance are not much in evidence, while the main characters come across as childish idiots at times, especially when Prokopowicz appears to sympathize with Benek's sulky tantrums over Lena's tragic illness. All the same, these are forgivable lapses into self-indulgence from a bravely unconventional cancer-themed drama whose shiny surface masks real pain.

Production company: Filmokracja
Cast: Agnieszka Zulewska, Tomasz Schuchardt, Eryk Lubos, Anita Jancia, Danuta Stenka
Director: Bartek Prokopowicz
Screenwriter: Katarzyna Sarnowska
Cinematographer: Jeremiasz Prokopowicz
Editors: Piotr Kmiecik, Robert Gryka
Producers: Klaudia Smieja, Katarzyna Sarnowska, Bartek Prokopowicz, Stanislaw Dziedzic
Music: Dawid Korbaczynski, Natalia Grosiak
Animation director: Nadia Micault
Sales company: Filmokracja, Poznan
Unrated, 105 minutes