united states of love

review by liam farrell

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Tomasz Wasilewski’s bleak new drama United States of Love will do little to change the image Western society has formed of life behind the Iron Curtain. Set in Poland in 1990 as the Soviet Union crumbles, the iconography is unmistakable. Tower blocks appear as ghostly obelisks which dominate the skyline. Interior scenes mostly take place in cramped flats, unfriendly functional chambers, and concrete-walled churches. Joy is a scarce resource.

The plot focuses on the unfulfilled sex lives and desires of four women of varying age and social-standing. Agata (Julia Kijowska) is trapped with a husband she doesn’t love, and develops an obsession with the local priest. School principal Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz), sees her six-year long affair with a doctor come to an end. Renata (Dorota Kolak), an older teacher nearing retirement at Iza’s school, is infatuated with Marzena’s younger sister Iza (Magdalena Cielecka), an aspiring model. Little satisfaction is found by any of them.

In the United States of Love everything feels frozen. The characters seem paralysed in unhappiness and dissatisfied with their lives, full as they are with emotional isolation. Their actions are primarily motivated by sex, though their drives are divested of any affection. Each of the women is reduced to desperation, having to resort to silent voyeurism, strange pantomime, and extreme manipulation in their attempts to find happiness. The sex itself is joyless, often playing out in single long takes in icy circumstances. Agata’s work sees her renting out seedy bootleg porn tapes on VHS, the cartoonish pleasure in stark contrast to the more frank sex in the film. A mood of oppression dominates everything, and the process of creating a true emotional connection seems fraught with difficulty. Life for the women of Wasilewski’s Poland is suffocating and fundamentally lonely.

The director’s control of tone is masterful. There is no score and little music in the film. The glaring silences in conversation and between scenes become stifling indicators of a breakdown in communication. This is the thirty-six year-old’s third feature, but it feels like his thirtieth, so assured is his grasp.

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The cinematography by Oleg Mutu, best known for his work on the highly acclaimed films of Romanian director Christian Mungiu, is also worthy of high praise. The characters appear boxed in by their surroundings, as Mutu makes clever use of the camera to place characters uncomfortably close to one another. Zoomed tracking shots which focus tightly on the back of character’s heads also draw us further into their perspective, showing them to be locked into their predicaments. The colours are completely washed out, and sickly hues of green and blue tone the predominantly grey Soviet milieu. The characters take on the same corpse-like pallor as the similarly lost characters of the films of Roy Andersson, giving us the feeling that the living and the dead are not all that far apart.

There is much to be gained for viewers willing to brave the cold. The mood bears resemblance to the austere work of Michael Haneke, and Wasilewski similarly manages to make misery and sexual frustration compelling, not an easily-accomplished feat. Credit is due to the four central performers, who give the film a devastating humanity. Kijowska gives an emotionally raw performance as Agata, alternating between a haunted detachment and violent outbursts of passion. Marta Niewkiewicz creates an impressively tightly wound headmistress, giving us a sense of her inner panic once her finely composed life begins to unravel. Dorota Kolak’s beady-eyed gaze adds an unsettling vulnerability to her lonely character. Together they form a strong ensemble, and make the characters a source of empathy in a film that is often difficult to engage with.

Watching United States of Love, you get the sense that the filmmakers got very close to making the film they set out to make. However, the action can occasionally feel inaccessible, the characters too cut off to have any deep connection with, the mood too grim to bear. It is undoubtedly an accomplished piece of work though, a study of women at the end of their tether, ground down by lives which seem scarcely worth the effort.