Gdynia Film Festival 2014: Walerian Borowczyk, No Matter How Hard We Tried, & More

Much like the surrealists, Walerian Borowczyk mines the sexual terrain for what it reveals about human inventiveness, as well as our fears and follies.

Gdynia Film Festival 2014: Walerian Borowczyk, No Matter How Hard We Tried, Home Shopping, & More
Photo: Gdynia Film Festival

The 39th Gdynia Film Festival, one of most prestigious film events in Poland and the only one dedicated exclusively to Polish film, may have lacked in its main competition a jewel as polished as last year’s Ida, but it still shone in the sideline programs. Among those, a retrospective of restored animations by Walerian Borowczyk, a Kinoteatr program of screened theater productions, and a brand-new section, Artists at Cinema, engaged Poland’s contemporary visual artists.

At the Borowczyk retrospective, Daniel Bird, who produced the restorations released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Arrow Films and also directed a biopic documentary, argued for not viewing Borowczyk as a late-life soft pornographer (Borowczyk’s perhaps most infamous feature was 1985’s Emmanuelle 5). Instead, the animated shorts attest to the range of Borowczyk’s themes and not just to his libidinal panache: Renaissance (1963) is a haunting, nearly post-apocalyptic tableau in constant reconstruction and brilliantly shows how sound can override the physical marker we see on the screen, creating new, strange dissonances; The Astronauts (1959), co-scripted with Chris Marker, is a dreamlike ode to solitude in outer space; Holy Smoke (1963), takes on the class struggle via a narrative of tobacco users; while Joachim’s Dictionary (1965) plays with body language and A Private Collection (1973) is a joyful romp through a collector’s cabinet of sexual toys and other erotica.

Much like the surrealists, Borowczyk mines the sexual terrain for what it reveals about human inventiveness, as well as our fears and follies. His material is the strongest when at its least literal, and so pales somewhat in a dire short, Rosalie (1966), based on a short story by the French writer Guy de Maupassant about a maid who confesses to murdering her children. Played by Ligia Branice, the titular Rosalie speaks at the camera recalling the crime, whereas the similarly sober-minded Diptych (1967) teases in its juxtaposition of a black-and-white film with a color study of wilting flowers, but ultimately fails to produce the same fireworks that illuminate—and lighten—most of the other shorts.

In an age of television miniseries and reality TV, viewers may no longer be used to watching fully staged drama via the same medium. In comes the tantalizing Kinoteatr. At the sold-out screening of director Grzegorz Jarzyna’s adaptation of Dorota Masłowska’s No Matter How Hard We Tried, both theater and television’s galvanizing energies were on view. Most sparks were linguistic: Since her debut in 2002 with the novel Snow-White and Russian Red, Masłowska has been dazzling with her ability to riff on ordinary words, enthusing her wickedly funny dialogues with street lingo. Masłowska places on stage three generations of Polish women: an old woman in a wheelchair whose recalling of World War II is so vivid and trenchant it borders on hallucinatory; a middle-aged mother who pours over women magazines and completes futile pop-psychology quizzes; and a young girl who suddenly sheds her blasé stance to deliver a heated cosmopolitan manifesto. In a cubicle where furniture and walls are sketched out in white chalk, the three women’s bickering, farting, and vomiting are gleefully demonstrated. When we leave the claustrophobic surroundings, it’s to follow a fashion model who steps down from a glossy billboard amid a singsong of product names. Masłowska eviscerates both commercialization of just about everything as well as national myths, from war-hero worship to xenophobia and rightwing politics. She then turns meta, introducing a washed-out script writer who, in vain, tries to mold the action of the play we’ve been watching. Between the real and the hyper-real, Eastern-European parochialism and authenticity threatened by globalization, we can’t help but lose ourselves in Masłowska’s tightly wound-up universe. Under Jarzyna’s direction, the kitschy game cleverly turns on the viewers, as if we’re all trapped on a TV set.

Another festival section, Artists at Cinema, beautifully complemented the theatrical offerings. The series emphasized the porousness between films shown in the context of a gallery versus a cinema setting, with the former often acting as a trendsetter. One of the featured shorts, Oskar Dawicki’s Home Shopping (2007), very much like Masłowska’s play, draws us into the absurdities of the contemporary world where pretty much anything can become a commodity. In Home Shopping, art is sold in a late-night television infomercial, with prices slashed in bold red to taunt the viewer and emphasize the steal. Turning luxury and prestige on their heads, Dawicki hints at just how slippery the art’s marriage to commerce can be, while indulging in infomercial’s crude tactics.

The section also presented a short featuring the work of Polish visual artist, Katarzyna Kozyra, who had been named during this year’s Gdynia Film Festival a winner of a co-joint prize given by the Polish Film Institute, the Wajda School, and the Museum of Contemporary Art—a special prize first awarded in 2011 that allows visual artists to create experimental feature-length works. The short captured the preparations for Kozyra’s video installation The Rite of Spring (1999-2002). Purely observational, the camera followed Kozyra’s crew as they instructed and rearranged aged and nude men and women on what poses to strike while lying on a floor. The posed participants were photographed and the photographs animated in an elaborate ballet—a literal springing to life, though not lacking a critical bent, as Kozyra pushes the notions of beauty, gender, and grace. Mixed in with the short films from previous award winners, Zbigniew Libera (News, 2014), Anna Molska (Weavers, 2009), and Agnieszka Polska (Future Days, 2013), the Kozyra short hinted at yet another important function of film, as not only a final product, but also a vital witness and encoder of an artistic process.

The Gdynia Film Festival ran from September 15—20.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Film Comment, The Notebook, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, and other publications.

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