Jagoda Szelc has moved Polish cinema to realms it had never ventured to conquer with her debut full-length film Tower. A Bright Day (2017). This naturalist and dreamlike film stirred up viewers’ emotions and intrigued them with its ambiguity. The young director skilfully narrates a story around psychological intrigue and masterfully interweaves it with an eerie, subconscious anxiety making us feel as if we were watching a horror film. This intriguing hybrid, which resembles films by Lars von Trier directed at a later stage in his career, could be placed somewhere in between a subdued drama film and any specific film genre. Whoever has watched it carefully, has found even more analogies between this film and works by the famous Danish director. Jagoda Szelc presents a story closely focused on a family running head-on towards apocalyptic catastrophe. It has made well-versed viewers think about another film, Melancholia (2011). There is, however, much more to her film, since it is a parable packed with symbolism that presents us with a collision of nature and culture. This conflict was also explored in Antichrist (2009) and we have to admit that both films clearly depict pagan elements juxtaposed with Judeo-Christian order. In Tower. A Bright Day there is a material symbol to this religious order, i.e. the eponymous tower. Jagoda Szelc’s innovative approach is definitely not what we see in Polish mainstream films. Despite this, this film was a considerable success, brought the artist many awards and made her audience eagerly wait for more. She quickly became a personality in Polish cinematography – one of its most important, but at the same time unknown parts. This recognition was much deserved. A fresh approach, an original topic, an intuitive knowledge of the form and outstanding skills in managing a group of virtually unknown actors is what made Jagoda really stand out. Presumably she had such enormous courage in her artistic pursuits thanks to her education in the field of visual arts, which she completed before embarking on a journey as a professional film director. She holds a diploma from the Academy of Fine Arts in Wroclaw, where she studied graphics.
When you make a name for yourself, you have to deal with the hopes and expectations of your audience and face the fears of letting them down. Jagoda Szelc did not let these demons terrify her and just a year after her debut she presented her second film at the Gdynia Film Festival. It is arriving in Polish cinemas soon. Monument is not a typical production, therefore it is far more difficult to assess it accordingly. It is, in fact, a diploma project by students from the Acting Department of the Lodz Film School. As a result, one of the film’s aims is to present the audience with a new generation of actors and to showcase their abilities to the fullest, which of course, involved making multiple compromises. A director of such film can use this opportunity to experiment and assign risky tasks to actors. At the same time they need to bear in mind the importance of presenting all actors using equal proportions. Achieving this is only possible in a film with many chapters and secondary themes that would enable the director to assign everybody “their own” role. The actors have to suppress their ego on their part, so as not to dominate the film and to allow the director to create their own work that would become a legitimate part of their artistic oeuvre. Jagoda Szelc found a perfect way of dealing with this challenge. She made students initiate artistic adulthood play, to enter their professional “adulthood”. The main characters in this film are not, however, young actors, but budding stars of the hotel industry. Together they go to a mysterious hotel in order to complete an internship that will be evaluated at the end of the film.
The initial sequence depicting the journey to the internship venue signals considerable deviations from the realist convention, which becomes more visible as the film progresses. Jagoda Szelc proves herself to be a master in providing the audience with false trails. When the strict training programme begins and we get familiar with the heartless supervisor, it appears that we are watching a film aimed at criticising dehumanised corporate capitalism. At first, the disappointed film characters behave like teenagers during a summer camp and try to break the set rules. An atmosphere of oppression coupled with frustration due to disgraceful working conditions gives rise to violence that builds slowly and manifests itself in a fight for the dominant role among the interns. They are humiliated so they start to humiliate one another and embarrass hotel guests. Each of the young interns has their own fears and desires which they need to face in this challenging environment. Emotions build up as time passes; no one fully understands what is going on anymore. The hotel becomes an undefined, inexplicable place that resembles a demonic institute. Dreamlike hallucinations take over and we are transported from a social satire and grotesque, which could as well have been directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, to a reality closer resembling a horror film, like the ones created by David Lynch.
Monument takes its name from the monument seen in front of the hotel (works of Olaf Brzeski are featured throughout the film), which is constantly dirty and impossible to clean. The whole film is full of narrative turns and visual symbols. Once again, Jagoda Szelc has created a film that challenges the traditional principles of morality. There is the same mysterious energy of pagan rituals as was present in her previous film. At a certain point the film is practically transformed into such a ritual and literally draws the audience inside. This immediately makes us think about Andrzej Żuławski’s films, which were ritualistic and “wild” to the same extent. In Żuławski’s Possession (1981), such a ceremony led the protagonists into the abyss and madness. In Jagoda Szelc’s film, ritual brings redemption, even if expressed in a very obscure manner.
Monument is evidence of the young director’s talent in working with actors and in managing the entire team. She is certainly the right person to oversee the actors’ team and make it gradually evolve into a single organism. On the other hand, this film capitalises on spectacular visual material and evocative ambience to a much greater extent than Tower. A Bright Day. Taking into account the tiny budget the director had at her disposal, we can be sure that the phenomenal effect she achieved was thanks to her extraordinary intuition and solid practical skills. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, the restrictions of a diploma project showed in this film. There are a large number of chapters, not all of them are well made and some of them seem redundant. Poetics and symbols sometimes become vague and superficial but despite this we cannot accuse Jagoda of arbitrariness and lack of an overall concept. If you watch Monument without due attention or just watch single chapters, it may appear a pretentious failure to you. If you, however, pay closer attention and devote more time, you will notice that nothing seems out of place and the whole script was thoroughly thought over. This does not necessarily mean everything is very sophisticated or innovative. The narrative structure is solid, but quite hackneyed. Ardent cinemagoers will definitely figure out where the whole plot is heading. Overall, Monument does not completely satisfy the tastes of demanding film lovers. I would say that Jagoda Szelc promises a bit more in this new film than she actually gives to her audience. Possibly it had to be that way and this particular project offered no room for more. What we definitely are treated to is a group of talented young artists and a consistent, modern female director who once again proves that she has her own identity and is one of a kind in the directors community. We have to bear in mind that diploma projects are only aimed at presenting potential, which is to flourish and emanate greatness in the future.
— Monument, 2018
Dir: Jagoda Szelc
Cast: Zuzanna Pawlak, Anna Biernacik, Paulina Lasota
Year of Production: 2018
09 Apr, 17:45 BFI Southbank, London
Screening will be followed by a Q&A with Jagoda Szelc
KINOTEKA Polish Film Festival returns to London’s festival scene from 4 – 18 April 2019, bringing with it an exhilarating range of new Polish film and culture as well as highlighting lesser known gems ripe for rediscovery. Hosted by some of London’s most prestigious and forward-thinking cultural institutions, this year also includes masterclasses, artist film screenings, workshops and musical entertainment.