In Małgorzata Szumowska's Mug, awarded with the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, bon mots are prioritised over accurate dramaturgy and journalistic theses over psychological subtleties. Her film is a caricature of Poland. It is untrue and filmed from the perspective of a superior higher class.
Szumowska tells a story of a man who was the first Pole to undergo a face transplant after a tragic accident. However, she is more interested in the world surrounding the character than in himself. Mug is, contrary to what the chosen topic may imply, neither a story about identity nor about the body being prison for the spirit. It is a story about a country of conservative Catholics, vodka and narrow-mindedness. This portrayal is caricatural and very untrue.
The Poles shown by Szumowska are drunkards begging for vodka and desperate people fighting for the last TVs during sales. She presents mugs of upstart provincials who hire a carriage for their daughter's First Communion, a depraved priest, a drunken brother-in-law believing that being a real man means being violent and yobbish, a superstitious mother and workmen ready to give a lacing to their dark-skinned colleagues.
Szumowska takes the audience for a journey to an open-air museum. However, it is not an open-air museum of the Polish province but an open-air museum of her imagination. Szumowska's Poland is a world reconstructed from clippings, stereotypes and urban legends.
This is not the first time when the director reveals her predilection for taking shortcuts. In the film In the Name Of she took advantage of the media debate on Catholic Church sex abuse cases and showed the drama of a homosexual priest. Later, in Body, for no particular reason, she referred to other cases widely reported in the media, such as Zbigniew Beksiński's murder.
In Mug she builds her tale about Polishness using stories about depraved clergy, Polish gigantomania (the statue of Jesus built in Świebodzin serving as an example) and the stereotypical narrow-minded provincial Poles. Those who want to find some true elements in the story will indeed find them there. Yes, this is all true. Poland sometimes looks like that. However, Szumowska focuses on this single aspect of Poland too much. As a result, the reality that she presents turns out to be false.
This might have been Szumowska's deliberate choice. What seems to prove this thesis right is the form of the film, that is the way of filming. To a large extent Mug is filmed with the use of the tilt-shift effect. The effect makes it possible to keep the vision sharp only in the chosen part of the action shot, whereas the rest remains blurred. The audience focuses only on a fragment that the director wants to show to them and emphasise. The rest serves just as a pretty background. Michał Englert, the operator and co-screenwriter of the film, often uses this effect. On the one side the tilt-shift creates a fairy tale vibe, on the other it is a perfect illustration of Szumowska's directing strategy of seeing only what you want to see.
In Mug Szumowska takes the audience for a 'safari' to the poorer and backward Poland, the so-called Poland 'B', and she assumes the position of the tour guide. The superiority with which she portrays her characters is unbearable. Actually, she does not care about the characters at all: they are just caricatures and their only role is to show the vices of the Polish. There is nothing ambiguous or profound about them, they do not undergo any transformations on screen.
And it is a pity, because Szumowska managed to gather remarkable cast. Agnieszka Podsiadlik as the sister of the protagonist is really moving and Małgorzata Gorol confirms that she is one of the most interesting artists in the Polish cinema. The parts of Dariusz Chojnacki (the brother of the protagonist) and Robert Talarczyk (the vulgar brother-in-law) are quite good. Even Mateusz Kościukiewicz is convincing. His character, Jacek, who underwent a face transplant (very good makeup by Waldemar Pokromski), brings an anarchist energy to the screen.
There are good actors in the film, but Szumowska keeps them on a short leash. She does not let them create full-blooded characters or establish strong relations on the screen. Even if there is emotional truth appearing on screen and the film becomes moving (the scene with the protagonist being drunk), the director quickly returns to the position of the guide who talks about the presented reality with superiority.
In her pursuit for a strong message and showy theses Szumowska forgets about the rules of filmmaking. It is reflected especially by the script. In Mug there is only a long exposition and an equally long backstory. There is nothing happening in between. The protagonist does not have to overcome any obstacles and does not experience any troubles. He is just a puppet used in the subsequent sketches which are sometimes funny and sometimes not.
This is not the first time when Szumowska sacrifices her talent for the sake of film journalism. The director that has a very good feeling of storytelling, has a good sense of humour and, unlike many filmmakers, is able to film music, does not go beyond the level of a clichéd anecdote and intellectual simplifications. Mug, which was supposed to be a criticism of Polishness in the vein of Gombrowicz or Bernhard, turns out to be a feature version of some cheap Polish comedy series. It is better filmed, but it is equally simple.
- Mug. Direction: Małgorzata Szumowska. Script: Magłorzata Szumowska, Michał Englert. Camerawork: Michał Englert. Starring: Mateusz Kościukiewicz, Małgorzata Gorol, Agnieszka Podsiadlik, Dariusz Chojnacki, Robert Talarczyk. Premiere: April 6, 2018.