Maciej Bochniak’s Disco Polo tries to be both a fairy tale and an intertextual riddle for cinema buffs. At the end of the day, however, it turns out to be nothing more than a sentimental film gag.
A long-haired sheriff (Dawid Ogrodnik) crosses a desert in search of a wanted man (Piotr Głowacki). He meets a group of builders installing an oil well under the supervision of a Chinese boss. This how Maciej Bochniak’s story about Poland during the transformation period and the disco polo craze of that time begins.
His Poland looks nothing like the real one, however – it is rather a caricature of the America known from popular films. Bochniak takes his viewers on a journey across the world of the Wild West and to the shining Las Vegas, in order to tell the story of the Poles’ collective race in pursuit of the ‘American dream.’ They are guided by Tomek (Ogrodnik), a young man from the countryside, who, together with his musician friend (Głowacki), tries to make it to the top of the disco polo hierarchy.
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Bochniak doesn’t mock their dreams about fame and fortune, he doesn’t pass highbrow judgements on his characters (as was the case in Robert Gliński’s Love Me and Do Whatever You Want). His film an attempts to understand and describe the music phenomenon of disco polo – music which millions of Poles listened to twenty years ago, and which these days is undergoing a revival. Thus far, Polish feature cinema has seemed to ignore it. Bochniak not only pays attention to it, but also tries to comprehend the source of its popularity.
He presents the story about the wild 90s in the spirit of a fairy tale which escapes the laws of reason, and where the characters are representatives of specific values rather than people made of flesh and blood. And so, there is an evil king (Tomasz Kot as a music producer) and his girlfriend (Joanna Kulig), who falls in love with a modest musician, as well as the father – a heartfelt railwayman, and an eccentric grandmother.
In Bochniak’s film, the genre costumes act as a kind of filmic device allowing to pass from one motif to another without having to worry about consistency or causality. In here, every simplification can be forgiven – even when in one scene, the character played by Dawid Ogrodnik rebels and fights with his friends, while in the next one he already understands his mistake, only to fix it in the following scene.
By employing a grotesque fairy tale convention, Bochniak eliminates a sociological burden from his film. Anyone who expects Bochniak’s film to be to disco polo what Leszek Dawid’s You are God was to Polish hip-hop will be very disappointed. The young director doesn’t decode the disco polo trend and doesn’t try to explain the cultural changes of that time. He paints a bold, caricatural and sentimental image of music which reflected the plebeian identity of Poles.
Disco Polo is an eclectic and messy comedy, but is also has some funny bits. One can tell that the crew had a lot of fun on the film set. Gags dominate over the narrative as the film jumps from one humorous scene to another. Dawid Ogrodnik creates an ironic portrait of an aspiring working man, Tomasz Kot effs and blinds, graciously wearing a mask of a whiskered parvenue, and Piotr Głowacki, even though he also goes into comedic capers, creates the most vivid figure of a talented musician who walks on air and yet keeps his feet on the ground.
Bochniak, for whom Disco Polo is a full-length film début, does not lack confidence. Not only does he dive into a risky convention, but also daringly weaves in quotes from other cultural domains. Young men in white gloves borrowed from Haneke’s Funny Games meet Rogers Cole-Wilson, a black weather forecaster, who at one point was a viral sensation in Poland. We see authentic disco polo stars, music videos styled after Titanic, scenes from P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Western-like settings, and Jerzy Urban as a dangerous prisoner. We’ll find Tomasz Knapik reading the voice-over (similarly to Jan Suzin in Eukaliptus by Marcin Krzyształowicz), and Mateusz Kościukiewicz in several roles at the same time, including a parody of Angel from Kieślowski’s The Decalogue.
With all the jumble of gags and ironic citations, the young director misses a dramatic tension, while the film’s plot constantly loses momentum. Disco Polo turns out to be an assemblage of moderately funny jokes and a fairy tale which is drowned in easy sentimentalism.
Disco Polo, dir: Maciej Bochniak, sets: Maciej Bochniak, Mateusz Kościukiewicz, cinematography: Tomasz Naumiuk. Cast: Dawid Ogrodnik, Piotr Głowacki, Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig, Aleksandra Hamkało, Juliusz Chrząstowski, Mariusz Drężek. Distributor in Poland: Next Film. Polish Premiere: 27.02.2015. Duration: 107'
Bartosz Staszczyszyn, February 20015, transl. AM, August 2016