The Opening Gala for the 60th Cork Film Festival, 11 Minutes (a Polish co-production with Ireland’s Element Pictures and support from the Irish Film Board), kicked off the week of films with a bang. The anxiety-ridden latest film from veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski (Essential Killing) takes the audience on a fast-paced, head-spinning ride through the lives of several characters during the same 11-minute period in the city of Warsaw.
The narrative jumps forward and backwards to weave together fragments of the various characters’ lives to their ultimate connection in the film’s final moments of catastrophe. Perhaps the calmest of these threads, and certainly the central one, follows a slimy Hollywood director, played by Richard Dorner (Good Vibrations) auditioning an actress (Paulina Chapko) in his hotel room with plenty of sexual insinuations. We also follow her jealous husband (of one day) who desperately tries to find her in the hotel, an ex-con hot dog vendor (who used to be a professor) outside the hotel, a group of nuns, the hotel window cleaner who sneaks into a room with his girlfriend on a break, a drug courier on a motorbike, a teenage boy attempting to commit a robbery, and elderly painter, a dog and his recently broken-up owner, men monitoring CCTV traffic cameras, and paramedics having a difficult time reaching a pregnant woman.
These characters are cleverly woven together, and their relationships developed (though many are only spatially linked), through background appearances in one another’s central moments, contact with one another, and the repetition of the same events from different perspectives (showing the importance of perception). However, the speed at which we hurtle through the glimpses of their lives before moving frantically to the next leaves much of the narrative underdeveloped. Many questions arise in these fragments which are left unanswered. While it could be argued that these questions are unimportant in regard to the path the film takes, the quick switches between loosely developed narratives can make the film difficult to follow, particularly in the beginning.
Rather than steadily building its pace, the film is frenzied from the off, instead choosing to slightly ease up the pressure for moments, only to plunge straight back in. In this sense it has the feeling of an exercise class, with high intensity bursts followed by moments of catching your breath before another burst. Indeed, the film does leave the viewer with a sense of exhilaration and mental exertion. This pacing lends to the sense of anxiety created throughout the film, both in the narratives of individual characters and in the overall sense of an impending boiling point in the film where all the built up pressure will explode. A feeling that is mirrored by a close-up shot of a floating bubble in front of the city’s skyscrapers which suddenly bursts.
Key to the success of the film’s pacing and dizzying, full-throttle thriller atmosphere are the well-executed sound design and cinematography. Diegetic sounds make up a large portion of the film’s soundtrack, with revving engines, city traffic, sirens, chiming bells, street music, heavy breathing and the dog’s panting often taking an overwhelmingly loud prominence. Particularly significant is the recurrence of a low-flying plane over the city, the booming sounds of its approaching engine punctuating the film throughout, drawing the viewer back to that particular moment across the different characters’ narratives and simultaneously adding to the looming sense of foreboding. Overlaying the diegetic sounds at times are pulsing beats, ticking, and fast-paced music which all serve to increase the film’s tempo.
Despite the opening moments of the film which make use of gritty CCTV footage, shaky camera phones, and webcams, taking a found footage approach, the rest of the film is smoothly and aesthetically shot in widescreen. Still, throughout the film there remains a sense that in today’s world part of all our lives (and stories) are caught on camera, by our choice or not. Particularly drawing attention to this are the shots we see of the director and actress through the screen of the camcorder he has set up in his hotel room, and the shots of footage from a CCTV screen that pull back to reveal multiple screens of relaying images, glances into many lives as they go about their daily business. Meanwhile, angular shots of skyscrapers from below, pulsing close-ups and lighting, and blurred, quick shots all add to the sense of disorientation throughout the film.
Everything slows down in the film’s inevitable final moments, weaving all the frantic threads into a single event that leaves the viewer with the sense that the unexpected can occur at any moment in our lives. While the narrative strands leave something to be desired in this film, many of the performances are strong and its technical composition is very well done, creating an exhilarating, atmospheric film that leaves a lasting impression.
11 Minutes screened 6th November as part of the 60th Cork Film Festival (6 – 15 November 2015)