In 'Demon,' a Possessed Groom and a Look at Poland's Haunted Past

The writing and direction of ‘Demon’ are too sloppy – messy, even – to give a stable shape to materials as complex as those found in the film.

Itay Tiran in "Demon."
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If there is a demon in “Demon” – the third and final film of Polish director Marcin Wrona, who took his own life last September at the age of 42 – the movie itself seems more haunted and unsettled than the hero, a groom who finds himself possessed by a spirit on his wedding day. “Demon,” a Polish-Israeli coproduction, carries the Hebrew name “Dybbuk,” and it should be noted right away that it is not another film version of the play by S. Ansky, but rather an adaptation of a Polish play by Piotr Rowicki. The only direct allusion to Ansky’s play I found in “Demon” is the name of the possessing spirit: Whereas in “The Dybbuk,” the dead man whose spirit enters the body of the heroine is called Hanan, in Wrona’s movie the hero is possessed by a dead woman named Hannah.

Also, like “The Dybbuk,” whose plot focuses on the heroine’s planned wedding, “Demon” is set on the day the hero is supposed to get married. But whereas Leah in “The Dybbuk” does not love her intended husband and clings to the spirit of her dead lover, Wrona’s hero is marrying the woman who is supposedly his beloved. His possession has nothing to do with their love affair, but rather emerges out of Poland’s haunted past.

The bride and groom are “supposedly” in love, as I have claimed, because one of the many problems with “Demon” is the lack of any visible romantic spark between the hero and his fiancée. We have no clue what has brought them together, and when the groom begins to fall apart, the bride’s strange reactions only increase our incomprehension. Such odd reactions attest to Wrona’s effort to make a horror comedy with elements of both satire and absurdity, and which moreover takes a severe look at the past with which Poland has trouble grappling. However, all of these elements fail to form an artistically coherent picture.

A preview for Marcin Wrona's "Demon." YouTube

The hero, Piotr, sometimes referred to as Peter (Itay Tiran), is a British man of Polish descent, who arrives at a Polish village to marry his fiancée, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), at her family’s summer home, which the young couple is expecting to receive as a wedding gift from the bride’s father. Construction work on a new swimming pool has already begun, and when Piotr is wandering around (the movie leads us to suspect he might be marrying Zaneta for her property) he comes across a hole in the ground containing human bones.

Piotr conceals this fact from Zaneta and her family because of the pall that such a discovery might cast over the wedding. But the hole refuses to remain a secret, and from it rises the figure of a bride named Hannah, who enters Piotr’s body and soul. She even causes him to speak Yiddish, which joins the Polish and English he otherwise speaks, and suggests that she was a Jewish bride murdered and buried on the estate, probably during the Holocaust, although this is never explicitly stated.

Crazy fantasy

When Hannah’s spirit possesses Piotr, he begins to act strangely. Everyone around him thinks he is drunk; when his condition worsens and he starts to convulse, his family and their friend, a Jewish doctor, claim that he is an epileptic. Gradually, however, the bride and her relatives understand that the problem is more serious. All this happens during Piotr and Zaneta’s nuptials and the party that follows, one of the wildest wedding celebrations ever seen. But the cavorting of the guests seems more like some crazy fantasy emerging from the hero’s mind than a comment on a society that Wrona is observing from a critical distance.

The materials of which “Demon” is made might have produced a fascinating work. They are present in the movie, from the myth of the dybbuk – which, if handled in an intelligent and original way, might have been the basis for a compelling work exploring gender identity – to the matter of the skeletons of Poland’s past. Had the movie succeeded, its plot – like the plot of Ansky’s play – might have been read as representing the emotional collapse of those who are swept into a romantic relationship. But the writing and direction of “Demon” are too sloppy – messy, even – to give stable shape to such complex materials.

As for Tiran, his performance in the first half of the movie is colorless to the point of monotony, and then – after his character is possessed – it becomes grotesque. But that’s what happens when a movie is infested by a demon.

"Demon." Directed by Marcin Wrona; written by Marcin Wrona, Pawel Maslona; with Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska, Andrzej Grabowski, Tomasz Schuchardt.