A satin bomber jacket with the words “Wild Spirit” and a gold eagle embroidered on the back was director Tomasz Wasilewski’s unconventional outfit choice for the premiere of his United States of Love at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. The film lived up to this bold sartorial statement. While meaty, complex screen roles for females are still relatively hard to come by, no less than four of them are combined in the multi-stranded tale of women grasping for greater personal fulfillment in a town in 90s Poland just after the fall of communism. Wasilewski, who also wrote the screenplay, won the Silver Bear for Best Script at the festival, affirming his confident freshness of perspective and skilful interweaving of psychological revelations.
It’s the Warsaw-based 35-year-old’s third feature. The high profile afforded by the Berlinale’s main competition comes on the heels of his 2013 breakthrough Floating Skyscrapers, an intense gay romance that was groundbreaking for the cinema of his traditionally Catholic nation, and was awarded at Czech festival Karlovy Vary. United States of Love builds on his exploration of desire complicated by social circumstance in Poland; of what love is and where its limits are drawn.
When I meet Wasilewski in Berlin the day after the premiere, he rushes in a few minutes late, apologetic, from the sounds of goodnatured ruckus next door. They’ve been toasting one of the film’s actresses for her birthday, he explains. The last time we met, Floating Skyscrapers was doing the round of festivals, and he’d been expressing his love of films about women, saying he wanted to make one next (he’d named both Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan as films he adores). When I congratulate him on bringing this plan to fruition (and how), he says: “Women interest me the most. They have such a mystery and so many layers in their emotional side that as a director I can dive there, and if I swim for a hundred years I will never explore all of that.”
United States of Love follows four women through personal crises. Agata (Julia Kijowska) is after 15 years questioning her marriage, her yearning for intensity channeled into an unrequited fixation on a handsome local priest. School principal Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) seems crisply composed, but is driven to a desperate act when her longtime lover rejects her following the death of his wife. Lonely schoolteacher Renata (Dorota Kolak), who’s being forced into retirement, engineers meetings with Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz), the neighbour she has a crush on. Marzena is an aerobics instructor and former beauty queen whose husband is off earning a living in West Germany. Her unfulfilled dreams of modelling lead her into vulnerable territory with a big-city photographer.
Their situations take cruel turns in a society intoxicated with the notion of freedom but not yet offering many concrete options or emotional space for women who do not fit the mould of attentive housewife. “Very often we people use big words. It’s very easy for us to say to a person: ‘I will do everything for you.’ It’s a cliche we really use,” says Wasilewski. The point where such promises and limits are crucially tested is where the drama of his films is most devastating. While clearly fascinated by women pushed to the brink, Wasilewski’s empathy can be felt in every frame as his characters act out from the pressure to repress their emotional lives. “I don’t help them,” the director says. “I don’t want to help them. If I did that I would be giving you answers and I just want to tell a story, to portray emotion. I really love all my characters, trust me, but I know I’m not easy with them. I make them suffer, I know this.”
The 90s Poland of United States of Love is very much a reflection of Wasilewski’s own memories of growing up. He lived packed close to neighbours in a concrete apartment block like the one that dominates the movie. “I was nine when communism collapsed in Europe,” he says. “As a grown guy I started to think about my parents and the choices they had at my age. I realised from our talks they had totally different ones than I have.” He attributes his characters’ lack of options not only to the shaky uncertainty of the transition to capitalism, but also the entrenched traditionalism of Catholicism. “I was sixteen when I first met a person from a broken home,” he recalls. “Now it’s everywhere, people just split. At that time people did not.” His father left for a couple of years to earn money in the west so he could buy the family an apartment in Warsaw and better secure his children’s future — an absence echoing that of Marzena’s husband in the film. “That scene when they watch the video tape, this is my father, an original tape he recorded for my family — but his was minus porn,” he laughs. Wasilewski stayed home with his mother and older sister. “I remember this time through women’s eyes,” he says.
A distinctive element of United States of Love is its washed-out pastel look, which at times resembles colour-tinted black-and-white; an anaemic world straining for hints of life. Wasilewski enlisted cinematographer Oleg Mutu, renowned for his work on key Romanian New Wave films The Death of Mr Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. “He’s extremely talented but he’s a good person, and I think it shows in his camera,” says Wasilewski of Mutu. “That is very important because he loves people, he knows how to look at them.” The pair’s shared experience of growing up under communism was very important in developing the film’s visual atmosphere. “Half of Europe went through the same thing, it’s not only a Polish thing,” says Wasilewski. “When we started talking about this period of time and went back to our childhoods we didn’t have any colours in our memory, so we thought okay, let’s do it that way. I have no nostalgia for that time, communism is the worst thing that happened to the world. Maybe not the worst, but one of them, growing up in a closed place where you have no opportunities.”
With typical wit, Wasilewski recounts a childhood memory, by way of illustration: “I remember my parents wanted to buy a car, a very small Polish car, and it was impossible. You had to sign up, they got a letter that in two years on my birthday they would be able to buy a car. But it was a white car, and my mum had always dreamed about a red car. And for the red you had to wait one year longer.” It’s this ear for the vital specificity of female aspiration and desire, made absurd by the pitilessness of trying experience, that is everything in making United States of Love, a film of both black humour and vivid humanity.