'United States of Love' ('Zjednoczone stany milosci'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Oleg Mutu
Once upon a time in the East.

Tomasz Wasilewski's Berlinale prize-winner centers on four women struggling with love and loneliness in newly post-Communist Poland.

Love is a losing game for the four women at the heart of this austere Polish ensemble drama, a bracing cold shower of East European bleak-chic that won the Silver Bear screenplay prize in the Berlinale's official competition. Set in the early 1990s, United Sates of Love is partly inspired by writer-director Tomasz Wasilewski's own childhood memories. Shot in artfully washed-out pastel tones by feted Romanian New Wave cinematographer Oleg Mutu, Wasilewski's Berlin debut combines stylistic rigor, serious intent and a fine ensemble cast. Further festival interest is assured, with solid art house potential given the enduring niche audience for glum social realism from former Soviet Bloc nations.

Their stories intersecting in chronologically scrambled order, the four women are loosely linked as sisters and co-workers, neighbors and friends. All live in a small satellite community of concrete apartment blocks, classic socialist-era architecture. The date is around 1990, during that uneasy transitional period after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before the Soviet Union imploded. With capitalism creeping in, these women are cautiously embracing novel western imports like VHS video cassettes, aerobics classes and Whitney Houston albums.

Unrequited love, loneliness and alienation link the protagonists. Trapped in a stifling marriage, Agata (Julia Kijowska) burns with illicit lust for a hot young Catholic priest. Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) is an elegantly frosty school principal whose long-term affair with a married doctor falls apart after he is widowed, driving her to increasingly extreme measures in a desperate bid to win him back.

Living alone in an apartment full of birds, 60-ish Russian teacher Renata (Dorota Kolak) turns her needy gaze on her much younger neighbor Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz), an unhealthy fixation with possible lesbian undertones. Home alone with her husband away working in western Europe, Marzena herself is trying to realize her dream of becoming a model, falling prey to the sleazy downside that comes with the arrival of capitalism in Poland.

United States of Love is a coolly compassionate depiction of the raw deal suffered by women during recent Polish history, their options limited by failed utopian politics, economic hardship and religious conservatism. Painting three of its four main characters as emotionally unstable stalkers, it is not exactly a bold feminist statement, but a multi-generational all-female ensemble piece is still a rare pleasure. Wasilewski's screenplay would pass the Bechdel test with honors, and he pointedly depicts his marginal male characters as bullies and brutes too.

In meshing four short films about love and (more often) its absence, Wasilewski seems to be grasping towards the unflinching emotional rawness of the late Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieslowski, though his tone is sometimes more self-consciously severe than the drama demands. His priorities are also a little skewed in places, dwelling longer on minor domestic tensions than more weighty matters, including a creepy sexual assault and the shock death of a child. But even if the message is a little muddy, United States of Love is plainly the confident work of a fast-maturing young filmmaker with a strong voice and a sharp visual sense.

Production company: Manana
Cast: Julia Kijowska, Magdalena Cielecka, Dorota Kolak, Marta Nieradkiewicz, Chyra Karol, Simla Jacek
Director, screenwriter: Tomasz Wasilewski
Cinematographer: Oleg Mutu
Editor: Beata Walentowska
Producers: Piotr Kobus, Agnieszka Drewno
Sales company: New Europe Film Sales, Warsaw
No rating, 104 minutes