In Tower: A Bright Day family drama clashes with metaphysical horror to form a touching and mysterious story. The debut film of Jagoda Szelc is the result of her untamed imagination and great artistic ambitions.
When describing the debut film of Jagoda Szelc, the critics always mention the same name: Yorgos Lanthimos. It is no wonder: both the young Polish director and the world star of art-house believe in the metaphysical power of cinema, and both are convinced that when you move away from realism, you can find truths about people and the world.
Just like Lanthimos, who in his masterpiece Dogtooth closed his characters in a mansion hidden from the world behind a tall fence, Szelc took her audience for a journey to a place isolated from the external world. Located somewhere in the Beskid Mountains, the house resembles a trap with no way out. Like in Polański's films (Knife in the Water, Death and the Maiden or Venus in Fur), an enclosed space becomes the characters' fighting ring for dominance, for approval, and for establishing their own identity.
In Szelc's film, the fight takes place between two sisters. Mula is the stronger one. She is the one who stayed in the family house to take care of their ill mother together with her husband. Reasonable and responsible, she wants to be as supportive as possible for her seven-year-old daughter Nina. The daughter's First Communion is the reason why the sisters meet again after many years. Kaja, who is mysterious and a little bit odd, comes for the family celebration and invades Mula's well-organised world. Why haven't they seen each other for such a long time? Why did they separate years ago? Why does Kaja's presence bother the rest of the family?
Szelc gradual uncovers these and other mysteries. Her debut film is a brilliant family psychodrama in which unsaid grievances and unprocessed traumas hide under the surface of everyday life. However, the film suddenly ceases to be mere family drama and goes in the direction of metaphysical horror.
The tones of these two parts are determined by the different temperaments and personalities of the main two characters. While the first sequences of the film are devoted to the reasonable Mula, the final part of the story focuses on Kaja. Szelc consciously divides the film into two stylistic wholes, which is emphasised by the film's split title. The 'Tower' part concentrates on Mula. It is a story about a rational world and its real problems. 'A Bright Day' is Kaja's part: it is metaphysical and ambiguous. Szelc presents her as an outsider, the black sheep or even a crazy saint who sees further and deeper than ordinary people.
The change of main character brings a change of genre and the final sequences of Tower. A Bright Day move us towards symbolic cinema. It has its pros and cons. On the one hand, Szelc's film seduces with how its ambiguity gives the viewer freedom of interpretation, but on the other it loses its coherence. At times it is also pretentious, but aren't young artists almost obliged to lay claim to something more than just mere realism?
While the stylistic easiness of Szelc is impressive, some of her scriptwriting solutions are questionable. The storyline about an Arabic refugee crossing the green border appears to be unnecessary, while the final scene showing a peculiar zombie walk seems clichéd and pushily symbolic.
However, it does not alter the fact that Szelc's debut is among the most interesting from the recent years in Polish cinema (it was no coincidence that it received the award for Best Debut at Gdynia Film Festival and the Paszport Polityki award for Best Picture). What's impressive above all is the way in which Szelc creates a dialogue with the masters of contemporary cinema. In her film, we can find not only traces of Lanthimos and Polański, but also the need for a genre transgression, such as in the great Get Out by Jordan Peele, Cloverfield Lane 10 by Dan Trachtenberg or Bone Tomahawk by S. Craig Zahler. These works, just like Tower. A Bright Day, change their genre along the way. They avoid both simple classifications and reproducing narrative schemes.
Szelc's biggest merit is in discovering new actors. The young director chose people that were not famous, but in whom she noticed their potential. Rafał Cieluch, who plays Mula's husband serves as a great example. He is charismatic and manly, and his appearance on screen is unusually intense. He is not the only one that shines in the film though. Anna Krotoska is excellent as Mula, a possessive mother who relieves her fear for her child through aggression, and Małgorzata Szczerbowska as Kaja, the insane saint from the Beskids who disturbs the other characters' orderly world. If we add to this the good turns by Anna Zubrzycki, Rafał Kwietniewski and Laila Hennessy, we get a cast worthy of the imagination and talented direction of Jagoda Szelc.
She will now have to face an extremely difficult task: rise to the exceptional level of her debut with her next films.
- Tower. A Bright Day. Script and direction: Jagoda Szelc. Camerawork: Przemysław Brynkiewicz. Starring: Anna Krotoska, Rafał Cieluch, Małgorzata Szczerbowska, Anna Zubrzycki, Rafał Kwietniewski, Laila Hennessy. Premiere: 23 March 2018.
Originally written in Polish, translated by MW, Feb 2018