Once Upon a Time in November – Andrzej Jakimowski
Once Upon a Time in November is a touching story about today’s Poland, born out of concern and social disobedience, but not free of journalistic simplifications.
The title of Andrzej Jakimowski’s new film could suggest that he directed a fairy tale. I assure, however, that it is the saddest fairy tale you will see in cinemas this Autumn, a fairy tale about Poland torn apart by ideological divides, full of aggression and social inequalities.
Its heroes are Mommy (Agata Kulesza) and Mareczek (magnetic Grzegorz Palkowski), a mother and a son who just got evicted. She was once a teacher, but lost her job and is now heavily depressed. He studies law and hopes that he will get a dorm room soon. Even since a bailiff took over their apartment, they wander about from hostel to almshouse, and from garden plots to Warsaw squats. Over time they are joined by another wretch, a stray dog named Koleś (‘Buddy’), which makes finding a place to sleep even more difficult.
By showing Mommy’s and Mareczek’s wandering, the director of Tricks portrays contemporary Poland’s intimidating reality – touched by indifference and institutionally inefficient. Jakimowski’s Poland is perhaps speckled with Kotwica, Polish Underground State’s and Home Army’s emblem, but is definitely not supportive. Nobody cares about others’ poverty: the bailiff does not perceive Mareczek and his mother as human beings, but as dogging bores; policemen know that they can do anything with the homeless young man; in urban almshouses rules often turn out to be more important than empathy.
Jakimowski shows the Polish social system’s inefficiency and says that anyone can become its victim. Poverty does not have Edi’s wino’s face, but that of two intellectuals – an ex-teacher and a future lawyer. In Poland, where the middle class is just a few credit instalments apart from homelessness, Jakimowski’s story turns out to be highly universal.
During the 14 years which passed since Jakimowski’s debut Squint Your Eyes, he worked out his own film idiolect. He narrated in his own way, without haste and with tenderness. In Tricks and the excellent Imagine, he lets himself get known as the cinema’s poet. Once Upon a Time…, although entirely different from those titles, confirms his voices’ strength.
Its strength lies in the studious observance of life. It is exactly Once Upon a Time’s… documentalistic observation which becomes the director’s greatest strength. Instead of making a character tell monologues about his hardships, Jakimowski shows a young man pressing his hands against a warm radiator. Here, small gestures mean more than words.
When reviewing Jakimowski’s film, Łukasz Maciejewski noticed that realistic episodes composing it could become topics for features in the local press. This is Once Upon a Time’s… biggest malady. The documentalist observance of life gives way to journalism. Jakimowski reaches for Małgorzata Szumowska’s method and rewords newspaper headlines into film scenes. Thus we have a story about rampant reprivatisation, police-station violence, heartless bailiffs and Polish nationalism, which becomes the film’s second part’s topic.
Here, Jakimowski the poet moves over for Jakimowski the citizen. While Ken Loach, cinema’s great socialist speaking up for the weakest for years, is the film’s first sequences’ patron, the concluding sequences are closer to Oliver Stone’s and Michael Moore’s engaged features.
When the Tricks director talks about the nationalists destroying November 11th celebrations, during which Poles commemorate independence, and destroying one of Warsaw’s squats, literality creeps into Once Upon a Time…. The journalistic discussion about the Polish legal system is written into the dialogues of two lecturers; the squat becomes a symbol for social equality’s last stand; and the characters give impassioned speeches about Warsaw insurgents giving away their lives for the fatherland.
Jakimowski cannot stop and say to himself: it’s enough. He still adds new scenes and new topics to his film. And even if he is right, and his emotions and civil stance are easily understandable, the film loses because of the journalistic tone.
- Once Upon a Time in November. Directing and screen-writing: Andrzej Jakimowski, cinematography: Andrzej Bajerski, music: Tomasz Gąssowski. Cast: Agata Kulesza, Grzegorz Palkowski and others.
Originally written by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, November 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, October 2017.Bartosz Staszczyszyn