VOD film review: United States of Love
Josh Slater-Williams | On 18, Nov 2016
Director: Tomasz Wasilewski
Cast: Julia Kijowska, Magdalena Cielecka, Dorota Kolak
Watch United States of Love: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes
From the washed-out greys and blues of its visual palette in the very opening moments, and with nary a colour traditionally linked to passion present during its entire runtime, United States of Love might seem like a deliberately ironic English title for Polish director Tomas Wasilewski’s latest film. Love really is a dominant theme here, though; it’s just a vision of it that’s a lot less optimistic than in most features. Not necessarily an overtly pragmatic spin, but more an examination of the limited options that can come about from it, and, in particular, how this spins into disappointments and isolation for four women crushed by various forms of anguish and repressed desire.
Poland in 1990 is the film’s setting, just as the Soviet empire is collapsing – trinkets like Whitney Houston tour posters are peppered in the background for period detail. Wasilewski’s screenplay, which won a prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, follows four different women in a gloomy town, a place still coping with and trying to move on from the heavy political turmoil of the preceding few decades. The residents have aged with communism, and it’s not something easily shed. As much as euphoric optimism may be present elsewhere in the Europe of the era (i.e. Germany, with the felling of the Berlin Wall), liberation is not so present a commodity here.
People are aware that things should theoretically be better now, but they’re not, and the central figures are only further beaten down by their inner desperation about their lot in life. The characters, all connected in little ways, include Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz), once a beauty queen and aspiring model, who now teaches yoga and dance, pining for a husband residing in West Germany. Renata (Dorota Kolak) is a teacher facing an imminent lay-off by school principal Iza (Magdalene Cielecka). Renata develops an infatuation-fuelled obsession with neighbour Marzena, compelled by her magnetic beauty, while Iza, who is Marzena’s sister, has been conducting an affair with a married doctor, who spurns their relationship after the death of his wife. Finally, there’s Agata (Julia Kijowska), who works with Marzena at a video shop. She is an unhappily married woman secretly obsessed, to futile ends, with a local priest.
They are all compelled towards a notion of love, but it is something forever out of reach, because the political can never fail to affect the personal, and subsequently the psychological. The society around them is concerned with notions of greater freedom, but the options remain suffocatingly limited, as the country and its people still struggle to progress from their past. As such, the uniting link of the title would seem to be that of emotional distance and falsehoods. United States of Love is a compelling portrait of female isolation in a particular social and historical context, but one that also succeeds as a more universal examination of repression, albeit one that’s often unsettling.