Jagoda Szelc’s Monument, produced in Łódź Film School, succeeded as a student film but not as a standalone production. Its impressive form doesn’t mean equally impressive content, which makes the film an unfulfilled promise.
Jagoda Szelc didn’t keep us waiting long for her second film. Even before the dust had settled from the spectacular Tower: A Bright Day, Szelc had started work on a new film – quite an unusual one, too, because it was commissioned by Łódź Film School.
From the start, Monument was intended to be a student diploma film. She had at her disposal 20 actors, a group of young film producers, and a tiny budget of 100,000zl. Szelc made a provocative but imperfect film, a project that was intriguing yet pretentious, well-acted, and somehow still quite naïve. In an interview with Przekrój magazine, Szelc said:
I like the fact that people read Monument as mumbo-jumbo, because it is more of a record of what we managed to achieve with other students. By this I mean the ceremony (I won’t say the word ‘ritual’, as it doesn’t sound right) closing mine and their education.
Monument is more of a video-art or a performance than a classic film with a three-act structure and the supremacy of plot over visuals and logic over intuition.
However the film is not completely devoid of plot. Szelc tells the story of a group of students who come to a provincial hotel to complete their internship. They receive name tags (all the girls are called Ania, all the boys – Paweł) and specific tasks. This is how the story of Monument, governed by the logic of a nightmare, begins.
Szelc has a lot of things on her plate: she talks about formal power structures, corporeality and the passage into adulthood, and the rejection the sacred in today’s world, and she criticises the fact that even though old ideas are no longer adequate, new ones cannot be born. The title is also symbolic – ‘monument’ turns out to be a rotten pedestal on which nothing stands. The film also has allusions to Milgram and Zimbardo’s experiments as well as allusions to Freudian and Jungian motifs. It can be said that Monument seems to be composed of fragments of an art-house film festival catalogue –multi-coloured, but not as clever as it intended to be. All the motifs used by Szelc form an ambiguous horror film – one based on tension and not on dramatic events. She creates an atmosphere of stifling oppression, all the while the shabby hotel progressively changes into a strange universe, similar to the hospital from von Trier’s series The Kingdom
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Still from Jagoda Szelc's ‘Monument’, 2019, photo: Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Filmowa, Telewizyjna i Teatralna (PWSFTviT)/Velvet Spoon
The director definitely had fun while creating the fictional universe, yet Monument leaves viewers indifferent. It is partly the fault of the complex plot – written in order to give each actor equal opportunities to appear on the screen. However, the director’s strategy is faulty: Szelc focused more on evoking impressions than on preserving the logic of the story and showing emotions of the characters. It’s not possible to identify with any of the characters, as Monument is more like a picture book of scary photos instead of a compelling story.
Szelc deliberately sacrifice unambiguity. In Tower: A Bright Day, she juxtaposed different film genres and various stylistic choices. It can be argued that she suggested clues to follow instead of creating a coherent narrative. Monument definitely lacks clarity, so that the viewers can interpret the film on their own.
Without Borders: Polish Experimental Documentaries
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Such a strategy is understandable, as it puts director in a very comfortable position. When focusing on the surreal, there is no need to pay attention to the integrity of the story. Each interpretation seems to be equally justifiable and non-definitive. It is difficult to resist the impression that Szelc plays it safe and that she uses the impressive visuals to distract viewer’s attention from the main theme – or more precisely, from its absence. It gives the impression that the director cheats, and Monument is a film directed by a very creative and intelligent person but nonetheless a manipulator.
Soon, after the premiere of Tower: A Bright Day, Szelc was considered to have her own style of filmmaking. Monument proves that she perfectly understands the medium she works with, and she likes to make references to the filmmakers of cult status. In her second film, once again, there are various elements inspired by von Trier, Lynch Haneke and early Lanthimos. Monument contains the mystery and ambiguity of the films by the aforementioned directors. However, it lacks their particular heaviness and irony, as well as an exhibitionist streak that would fill the film with content instead of hiding it under its impressive form.
Without Borders: Polish Experimental Documentaries
- Monument, written and directed by Jagoda Szelc. Director of photography: Przemysław Brynkiewicz. Scenography: Natalia Giza. Music: Rafał Nowak. Editing: Anna Garncarczyk. Cast: Mateusz Więcławek, Anna Bolewska, Jakub Zając, Karolina Bruchnicka, Zuzanna Lit and others. Premiere: 15 March 2019.