Body, which received an award at the 2015 Berlinale, is an example of cinema that is bold, wise, and incredibly funny. It is Małgorzata Szumowska’s best film thus far.
Szumowska investigates all sides of the word “body” and applies an infinite number of tags to it. She carefully observes the physicality of her protagonists. She shows bodies that are old and obese, a dead, addicted, massacred, starved, anorexic, cooled down, erotic body, as well as the body of a hermaphrodite and body freed from the burden of taboo (an excellent scene, in which Ewa Dałkowska dances naked to the song Śmierć w bikini / Death in Bikini by Republika). Bodies of animals processed as food, and astral bodies that communicate with those alive via mediums.
Szumowska’s film is about the diversity of ways of looking at the body. One could assume that the subject matter matches a video art piece better than a feature film, but the director of In the Name Of (W imię…) proves that is not the case. Her study of corporeality is woven into the story of an alcoholic Warsaw-based prosecutor (Janusz Gajos), his grown-up anorexic daughter (Justyna Suwała), and a therapist (Maja Ostaszewska), who realized after her little son’s death that she posseses the power to communicate with the dead. These three characters play out a poignant tale about the confrontation of faith with skepticism, hope with despair, and love with hate.
Szumowska has been focusing on the friction between psyche and soma for years. In the touching 33 Scenes from Life (33 sceny z życia) she presented a story about dying and the lust for life, in Stranger (Ono) – she focused on a young girl who learns about her (as well as other’s) body anew after she becomes pregnant, in Elles (Sponsoring), she touched on the topic of objectification of sexuality, while in In the Name Of (W imię…), she presented a body tormented by a forbidden sensuality.
Never has she, however, been so blunt about the body. In Body, it is shown as the prison of the soul, subject to social proprieties that thwart its freedom of expression. The body imprisons. It is no coincidence that the director repeatedly introduces the motif of a closed door. Her protagonists are isolated by barriers that are their own creations. The psychologist from the film lives in an apartment protected by a trellis; the prosecutor can’t leave the hospital without unblocking a digital lock, and at one point he has to call for a locksmith in order to get into his own apartment.
Szumowska’s film is a story of an attempt to free oneself from the body’s bondage by means of spiritual exploration, religion, and belief in the netherworld. “Is there anything beyond?” is the question asked on the film's posters. Szumowska not only does not try to answer it, but proves that there is no point in asking it. To her, the belief in the supernatural realm is only a way of coping with despair and the void.
This story about a rationalist prosecutor, his deceased wife, and the therapist-spiritualist is the opposite of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s late films. One can easily picture some scenes from Body being inserted into The Double Life of Veronique, The Decalogue, or Three Colours: Red. Szumowska, however, approaches that mysticism with a touch of irony. Just like when the character played by Ostaszewska mocks herself and ridicules her role as a spiritualized lunatic.
Szumowska, who won Berlin’s Silver Bear for Directing, handles the atmosphere of the film impeccably: she combines seriousness with humour, mystical drama with grotesque. Whenever the gravest issues are introduced on the screen, she pops the bubble of pathos with a humorous punchline. One such example is the opening scene, in which a hanged man “resurrects” and leaves the crime scene unnoticed.
Body is also a black comedy about the Poland that emerges in the newspapers. On the screen, Szumowska alludes to recent media scandals, such as the murder of Zdzisław Beksiński and of “the little Madzia from Sosnowiec,” she speaks of Polish religiosity, pedophilia, and abortion. That is, however, only the background, thanks to which the story of the confrontation of faith and reason is strongly embedded in the Polish contemporary reality.
Body is also a manifestation of great acting talents. Janusz Gajos seduces with his bitter sense of humour, and is accompanied by the equally great Maja Ostaszewska, who in this production presents one of her best roles. Ostaszewska plays the weird therapist with irony and tenderness, keeps a distance from her character, and at the same time makes her appear more human. The amateur Justyna Suwała is Szumowska’s great discovery – her role as the main protagonist’s daughter is played dramatically and powerfully.
Next to 33 Scenes from Life, Body is Szumowska’s best film and proof that the director has continued to work on her filmic language. This kind of cinema is faultless: funny and bold, intellectually profound, but not over-thought. This essay about corporeality interweaves with a drama about the need for intimacy, altogether coming across as a story which is disillusioned, but nevertheless hopeful.
Bartosz Staszczyszym 27.02.2015, transl. Ania Micińska, March 2015