De pers over UNITED STATES OF LOVE
“Zulke krachtig geschreven en indrukwekkend gespeelde vrouwenportretten zie je weinig.”
NRC Handelsblad 4****
“De vier personages in United States of Love verhouden zich in een vrijwel volmaakt evenwicht.”
De Volkskrant 4****
“Misschien een briljante nieuwe Poolse authentieke stem.”
Het Parool 4****
“Hoewel misschien niet allemaal even subtiel, treft de film doel.”
“Met zijn eerste historische drama treedt de Poolse regisseur Tomasz Wasilewski in de voetsporen van zijn legendarische landgenoot Krzysztof Kieślowski.”
De Filmkrant 3***
“United States of Love is plainly the confident work of a fast-maturing young filmmaker with a strong voice and a sharp visual sense.”
“The talented young writer-director Tomasz Wasilewski has an eye for eloquent framing and touches of absurdity, both of which evoke the work of Austrian film-maker Ulrich Seidl.”
“Like Kieslwoski, Wasilewski is looking for the drama in the everyday and is homing in on his characters, observing their eccentricities and their yearnings.”
“There’s no denying that Wasilewski is one of cinema’s most promising new voices.”
“Austere and melancholic, but also marked by dry minimalist humour.”
“This film is not here to make you feel good. But it has a soap-operatic watchability.”
Bitter love, unattainable love and obsessive love are mixed together in Tomasz Wasilewski’s formally admirable yet distancing drama.
The chilly landscape of Tomasz Wasilewski’s third feature pervades the characters as well as the environment, in stark contradiction to the intensity of emotion felt by the four leads. Set in 1990, just as the Soviet bloc is crumbling, “United States of Love” is an unevenly balanced and largely unforgiving look at four unhappy women, each with her own gnawing obsessions. Designed on one level to conjure the effects of a repressive society on women with few choices available, “Love” feels frigid even though Wasilewski (“Floating Skyscrapers”) likely wants to extend sympathy to their situations. Strikingly lensed by ace Romanian d.p. Oleg Mutu, this distancing drama will generate formal admiration but is unlikely to create waves notwithstanding brisk Berlinale sales.
The setting is a nondescript town of soulless apartment blocks, the kind familiar to all viewers of East European cinema with their isolating exteriors, dirt-field surroundings, and corridors seemingly created to allow neighbors to spy on one another. The opening shot at a dinner party is pure New Romanian Cinema, with Mutu’s camera acting like a guest at the table in a redesign of his unsettling dinner setup for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Here the main characters are introduced, though Wasilewski then largely separates the stories with only Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz) acting more or less as a bridge.
Hard-faced Agata (Julia Kijowska) is married to Jacek (Lukasz Simla). Sex has a passionate fury, yet when it’s over she rolls away and rejects his touch. The reason is she’s developed an obsessive, one-sided love for her priest, which takes complete hold of her mind and leads her to act irrationally.
Immaculately turned-out school principal Iza (Magdalena Cielecka, “Katyn”) has had a six-year affair with doctor Karol (Andrzej Chyra), but when his wife dies, he’s no longer interested in his mistress. Iza’s natural self-control is severely tested as she tries to hold on to her increasingly distant lover, finally resorting to an act of foolish desperation.
When schoolteacher Renata (Dorota Kolak) is forced to retire, her life suddenly feels directionless. Lonely, secretive and living with a host of songbirds she periodically lets out of their cages, Renata now has time to engage in her fixation on neighbor Marzena, who is Iza’s sister and a former beauty queen-turned-aerobics instructor feeling the pangs of separation from her husband, who’s earning a living in West Germany.
No one in these “United States” lives the life she imagined for herself, and disappointment spawns a host of untenable feelings they can’t control. Agata and Iza are engulfed in bitter love, the former for a man she can never possess, the latter for a man she can no longer hold. For both, the unattainability of this love (though is it really love? How can love be defined?) renders everything acrid, sharpening their frustration and making them behave in destructive ways. In Iza’s case, the destructive urge extends beyond herself and her lover: Wasilewski pushes his character to a horrifying edge, yet shoots the disturbing scene from a coldly calculated distance and then jumps slightly back in time to avoid any ramifications. The device feels something of a cheat, and leaves a sense of callousness that’s surely not intended.
Balancing the four stories is also a problem, with Agata getting short shrift; she’s practically forgotten in the wake of the stronger plotlines involving Iza and especially Renata. The film extends its greatest sympathy to the older teacher, although her obsession with Marzena is unexplained (deliberately so: Is anyone else’s obsession ever really understandable?). Not that Renata is a likable figure: She spies, she deceives, and yet there’s the sensation that such behavior is merely the natural outcome of years of state repression.
Wasilewski includes one moment of concentrated, quiet emotion, the most powerful scene in the film: Marzena teaches a waltz in dance class, and with each turn, Renata seems to become more weighed down with despair. Perhaps it’s just an impression, but it’s as if even her hair becomes flatter as her face droops and her eyes lose any life they had. What is it Renata loved, and how does it fit into these United States? Or as the oldest of the group, and therefore the woman most programmed by the communist machine, is love only possible in a corrupted form?
All four actresses deliver strong performances: Kijowska and Cieleck have a controlled, brittle intensity, while Kolak’s projection of loneliness is even more overwhelming, as if unsorted emotions have suddenly risen to the surface and Renata doesn’t know how to decipher them. Marzena may be the most pathetic figure of all, perhaps because her youth, beauty and energy offered so much promise: Nieradkiewicz holds the character together to the truly bitter end.
Mutu’s coolly watchful camera sticks close to its subjects, furthering the desired sense of suffocation, but Wasilewski indulges in far too many back-of-the-head shots that say more about the hairdresser than character or mood. Muted colors are in keeping with the chill, often drained to a bone white and lit as if by fluorescent bulbs: It’s a particularly harsh light for nude scenes that expose every line and sag. The evocation of the period is well done, down to the amount of cigarettes consumed.
In 2012 you made your first independent film In a Bedroom, a story of a meeting of a man and a woman. A year later we saw Floating Skyscrapers – a story of a love triangle, which was a hit of many film festivals. United States of Love is your third feature film. A story of four women, melancholy and Polish system transformation of the 1990s. Where did it come from?
United States of Love are based on impressions and images rooted in the memory of a 10-year-old boy I was in the 1990. As an adult I started to wonder how the life of my parents looked like when they were in their thirties. And I realised that the world offered them totally different things than it offers me today. So this film is in fact a collection of reflections of a man, who’s growing up and starts to appreciate other values than before. I didn’t start writing under a particular impulse as it had happened with my previous films. I began working on In a Bedroom inspired by Patrice Leconte’s Girl on the Bridge. In the case of Floating skyscrapers I was intrigued by the Warsaw West Bus Station, but this place never appeared in this movie. This time I just started writing about Agata and her story inspired me to move further.
I was fascinated by the stories of women living in the era of the system transformation in Poland. Why?
Women were a great a part of my boyhood, much more important than politics of that period. I looked on social and political transformation of Poland through their eyes. I lived in a block of flats that belonged to the army. All fathers worked in the same division, while mothers usually looked after the kids and the house. They were alone at home, they met on staircases and in grocery stores. Women were my whole world. Our neighbour, Mrs Danuta, popped in every afternoon for a cup of coffee and a brief chat with my mom. They were both housewives. Unfortunately I don’t remember what they talked about but I kept them in my memory as a sort of a ritual. Women often visited each other without prior notice. Relations between neighbours were different than today, less formal. I can also easily recall my mother’s name-day-parties, lots of women sat down to dine in and celebrate, when my father left for three years to NYC for work. That’s why the name-day-scene opens the film when Marzena’s husband is calling her from West Germany.
When working on a script you were recalling those women?
Of course, but none of the film characters in a one-to-one copy of a real person. Each protagonist is a fictional character based on impressions I got from meeting various people in my life. As a boy I was getting dance classes. So the classes led by Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz), a local beauty queen dreaming of a model’s career, look exactly like the classes I attended. I remember the teacher who danced among us and these memories inspired a number of scenes in the film. Marzena’s character is also partly based on my neighbour of that time – Agnieszka Pachałko, Miss Poland and Miss International of 1993. She lived almost next door and she was a big star at that time of Inowrocław, – the city I grew up in. But again, these two women – real one and fictional – are not exactly alike. Agnieszka had long, black, curly hair and I remember how she used to go to church in a white fox fur. She almost shined. Whereas Marzena is a modest, tiny blond girl. On the other hand, when I was creating character of Iza, played by Magdalena Cielecka, I tried to recall memories of my school’s headmaster.
In United States of Love you recall people but also places like a local video shop. I assume that it was a place you frequently visited.
Before my dad brought us video player from West Germany, I used to go to video rental shop just to be surrounded by films. Reading film titles was all I could have then. I remember that every second video cassette had Rambo and Dirty Dancing on it, and then Pretty Woman. Nobody cared about copyright back then, so you could find two movies recorded on one VHS. These places didn’t have masterpieces of Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman. Who in such a neighbourhood would watch Bergman? People needed a change, wanted to feel good. They wanted to watch American movies. But I want to say that even though my head is full of memories of those times, in United States of Love I tell a story of what is primal, basic yet extraordinary within human soul and heart. I believe emotions of human remain unaffected. You love with same intensity no matter if it is 1883 or 2016. Yet, political or social ideas of certain times may influence ways of thinking and therefore change ways of living. If the film was set in contemporary times, emotions of my protagonists would probably be the same but their choices could be different.
And probably easier?
Probably. For instance twenty-five years ago divorces, at least in my neighbourhood, were extremely rare. I was sixteen when I met first girl, whose parents got divorced. I was shocked and was not sure how to behave in her presence. Divorces are common nowadays, but still lots of people are not able end unfulfilling marriages. How much harder it must have been when a couple was part of claustrophobic community of isolated society? I am truly amazed by people who are taking great pains due to stay together. Agata played by Julia Kijowska has been married for fifteen years. She knows that her husband loves her, but still she can’t fight the feeling of loneliness in her marriage, she is drowning even though she seems to have a perfect life – loving husband, beautiful daughter, a job. But she cannot explain why she feels this way. Agata and the rest of my female characters are dealing with feelings nobody around has any idea about. And each of them wants to make a step forward, but they don’t know how to do this. You may say their behaviour lacks common sense. But aren’t we all like they are?
You touch on very intimate topics: alienation, despair, feeling of emptiness. How do you prepare your actors to play that?
My movies are driven by so many emotions that any conversation I have with my cast has to be profound, insightful and genuine. Obviously those conversations aren’t easy, since we touch di¥cult and painful subjects. Rehearsals are frequent meetings we have long before the shooting starts. We start by talking about characters and discuss all aspects: what could have happened in their past, how they could have been influenced by particular events (e.g. parents‘ death) and above all – what relations they have. We try to create many layers of emotions and then dig into some deepest meanings. Each of the characters taking part in a scene has his or her own feelings, observations and knowledge of a situation. We analyse every scene thoroughly, because I want my actors to know what their character feels in each second. If there is a scene in which someone makes a desperate move, we try to define despair, see where it came from and what power does it have over a particular character. I believe that if we answer these questions, we will always be able to tell the truth. I sometimes tell my actors about my own experiences due to which I know and understand a specific situation. In brief: rehearsals are more for us to understand the characters better and for me to learn more about a story, I’m trying to tell.
Did you have these specific actresses in mind when you wrote the film?
I did not write the roles for specific actresses. I knew exactly how I wanted each character to look like and what features it should have. Then I looked for actresses that would reflect my idea about each character. Then, together with the cast, we were building these characters, deepening them. I really wanted to work with all these actors. It’s not them, who asked for the roles – it was me who insisted, because I knew they would do the best job.
Is there any particular significance to the title?
For me United States of Love are first and foremost the heroines’ emotions. It does not necessarily has to be love. It’s more about all kinds of emotions that they associate with love: desire, hope, lust, but more often – pain, confusion, fear, alienation, the feeling of not fitting in, being lost. These are the emotions common to all of my protagonists, not only the women, although mostly them. Agata, Marzena, Iza and Renata are united in their own pain, which tears them apart, the feeling of terrible loneliness. Because of that, to me they are an symbol of all women.
Was camera present during these rehearsals?
Only when we have a di¥cult scene that requires a special choreography like the opening scene of name- day party.
So how did you work with Oleg Mutu, your cinematographer?
I work with camera and the cinematographer just like with actors – very intuitively. And I fully trust my intuition. Together with Oleg we tried to capture emotions we had earlier discussed during rehearsals. We also talked about the form of the film – we wanted the main character of each segment to always be centre- framed with the camera always close to her. We both wanted to make the film in mastershots. I think that when we exclude cuts, the audience has a better chance to become a part of the situation, they observe and feel real emotions. Oleg was constantly trying to come extremely close to the action and characters to create strong sense of participation.
Why did you want Oleg Mutu to be your cinematographer for this film?
Oleg just knows how to capture feelings within the frame and how to get under the character’s skin. He embodies his thoughts through camera lenses. I really wanted to work with him, because after watching his previous films I knew that we think about cinema the same way. I remember exactly how I felt after the screening of Cristian Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days that Oleg lensed. I left cinema astonished and was walking down the street with scenes from the movie still playing in front of my eyes. It was 2007, years before my debut movie but I promised myself to work with Oleg one day. Mihai Chirilov, the artistic director of Transylvania Film Festival helped me to contact Oleg, who asked me for a script and visual references. Two weeks later I called him, our conversation lasted only an hour, because our cinematic-sensibility and expectations matched each other perfectly. We both want as artists to find the truth about human emotions. Soon we meet for a three-days- long rehearsal session, we shot a few scenes with actors and Oleg told me we should make this film together. It was one year before actual shooting. And so we did. You didn’t shoot in Warsaw or Łódz like most filmmakers do because of well-organised and film-friendly infrastructure.
Where did you shoot?
We shot all the exterior scenes in Zyrardów and in Pruszków, small towns near Warsaw. I was looking for a specific housing estate: it had to be on the edges of the town with buildings standing far away from each other. I lived in a similar block of flats in my childhood. The housing estate in Zyrardów gave me what I needed: an impression of being at the end of the world and austere landscape. I wanted the architecture and locations to reflect the emotions of my characters. They all are on the edge of despair, they feel their worlds have ended and they are silently heading towards doom. Even though they live in a society, they are completely separated from each other and other people. Just like apartments in communistic architecture. United Stated of Love is Polish-Swedish co-production. Does it change anything for you? Co-production gives lots of possibilities and is essential for cinema. Films do not accept any borders. When different cultures, sensibilities and dispositions are juxtaposed, the creative process is highly inspiring. Thanks to co-production I also got a chance to work with professionals from different countries, i.e. with sound designers who collaborated with Wim Wenders on his latest movie Everything Will Be Fine. Every single meeting of that kind is like great adventure that broadens my horizons.