DIR/WRI: Tomasz Wasilewski • PRO: Agnieszka Drewno, Piotr Kobus • DOP: Oleg Mutu • ED: Beata Walentowska • DES: Marcel Slawinski, Katarzyna Sobanska-Strzalkowska • CAST: Julia Kijowska, Magdalena Cielecka, Dorota Kolak
Set in Poland, 1990, United States of Love is a portmanteau film that charts the love lives of multiple women over three stories. The first, regarding sexual love, deals with Agata (Julia Kijowska), whose relationship to her husband, Jacek (Lucasz Simla), has become emotionally distant. However, her voyeuristic attraction to a local priest helps reinvigorate the sex the couple share. The second segment, centring upon unrequited love, sees school principal Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) attempt to solidify her relationship to the man she has been having an affair with for six years just after his wife dies. The final section, revolving around the idea of “love for your fellow man”, centres upon the elderly, recently forced to retire schoolteacher Renata (Dorota Kolak) who has grown lonely. She begins to take drastic measures to connect with her younger, dance instructor and aspiring model neighbour, Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz).
Director Tomasz Wasilewski, with the help of cinematographer Oleg Muth (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) succeeds in recreating the Poland of the early nineties to a tee. If one compares United States to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog series, made in 1989, the two films look very similar. Muth’s washed-out cinematography and the dreary Soviet Bloc apartments in which most of the action takes place convey very strongly to the audience the coldness of the time period. Although, communism is beginning to fall and U.S. culture is becoming increasingly prevalent (Agata works in DVD shop selling American movies, Marzena brags about managing to buy a bottle of Fanta), the Poland of the film still feels trapped in the past. Women are casually beaten and mistreated by men, the housing and work conditions look small and cramped. At one point, we hear a child describe how “the cold air hurts her throat”. Even the physical atmosphere itself feels toxic and oppressive.
Wasilewski shoots the film in a similar method to directors like Kieslowski (there are also plenty of narrative nods to Dekalog), Michael Haneke or Asghar Farhadi – observing his central player’s lives from an unobstrusive cold distance to allow the viewer to form their own interpretation on events. The style fits the movie because United States, for the most part, is a very nuanced look at adult love. Although, the film predominately focuses on the negative side of its central topic – obsession, voyeurism, disillusionment – maintaining a chilly atmosphere throughout, there are emotional highs. The brief and subtle moment in the third story when, noticing how forlorn Renata looks watching a group of younger couples waltz, Marzena asks the old woman for a dance is incredibly moving.
That said, the film takes a blunt and heavy-handed detour in the last twenty minutes, which jars with the delicacy Wasilewski brought to his exploration of love previously in the drama. Without spoiling, not only is what happens also quite clichéd but the events leading up to the act just don’t ring true.
It’s unfortunate that the film chose to end at this point because what proceeded it was a well-observed, intelligent drama which, although not quite up there with the likes of Kieslowski or Haneke, does evoke memories of some of these masters’ best movies. Perhaps, Wasilewski with later works could reach their dizzying heights.
United States of Love is released 9th December 2016