Two Exceptional European Movies to See at the Haifa Film Festival

'United States of Love' and 'Zoology' confront the themes of repressed desire and lack of compassion.

From 'United States of Love.'
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No escape

How does feminine desire find expression in the transition period after the liberation from Communism? “United States of Love” (Poland-Sweden, 2016), a prize-winning film by the Polish director and screenwriter Tomasz Wasilewski, is set in Poland in 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist Bloc. It depicts the lives of four women by painting parallel worlds. The movie seems to possess a linear narrative, but Wasilewski succeeds in not normalizing the narrative and in creating a treadmill effect. As such, he responds to the dead end of his female protagonists, whose throbbing passion appears to be blocked. Agata, miserable in her marriage, is attracted to a priest; Iza is a school principal who is struggling with a hopeless affair; Renata is a teacher of Russian who, in a way unclear even to her, longs for her young neighbor Marzena; and Marzena herself is caught in a disappointed dream about a career as a model.

The four parallel worlds are tied together in the last part of the film. But the director does not allow these worlds, trapped in a tangle of passions without an outlet, to achieve a solution or a catharsis. The cinematography of Oleg Mutu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) forces upon us emotions that stem from a palette of faded blues and grays, and shots whose dominant element occurs at the edges of the frame. At most, he provides us with one moment of an amazingly colorful encounter. That moment occurs during a joint dinner of Renata and Marzena in a tiny garden crammed with domesticated parrots. But even that rainbow intimacy is drawn rapidly into an abyss of repressed feminine desire.

Post-Franco Spanish cinema celebrated the La Movida counterculture movement – in the transition period after 36 years of dictatorship, conservatism and censorship – mainly through the films of Pedro Almodovar. In contrast, Polish cinema of 2016 not only depicts the repressive social world as it existed 26 years earlier, but also hints at the impossibility of escaping the sexual-gender suppression even in the 2000s, when the film was made.

From 'Zoology.'
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Paralyzing cruelty

“Zoology” (Russia-France-Germany, 2016), a riveting film written and directed by Ivan Tverdovsky, demands that the viewer accede to cinematic illusion as a way to cope with questions of otherness. The plot depicts the change that occurs in the world of Natasha, a middle-aged woman, who lives a dreary, lonely life in a small city and suffers from the slings and arrows of her workmates in the zoo. Then she meets Petya, an x-ray technician who is not deterred by the gruesome secret she hides in her underwear: a tail.

Tverdovsky does not shape the tail in the cinematic tradition of seductive feline femininity, but as a solid, different organ. At the same time, Petya seems to accept Natasha despite the tail, giving rise to a kind of fairytale of attraction and falling in love in which Natasha discovers her womanhood and her identity thanks to her otherness. Liberated from the past and equipped with her beauty and her love, she rebels against the society that subjected her to a reign of terror.

The director fashions the small city as a borderline place bounded by the sea, so that escape is impossible. The blue shade of no-exit totally dominates the design of the city and its characters, including Natasha and Petya. Tverdovsky thus creates a monochrome of similitude in order to respond through it to a social world that is fearful of change, and beats it back.

However, with the exception of a few scenes, “Zoology” does not deal with the social reaction to the heroine’s otherness, but with our reaction as viewers. In the first part of the drama, a shoulder-mounted camera that follows Natasha forces us to look at her primarily in medium shots, from the back. By not exposing us to the lower part of her body, the camera makes us share in hiding the secret. After the change, when Natasha dances happily and gyrates her body in the local club, the camera switches instantaneously from medium and close-up to long shots, revealing the tail that sticks out of her glittering dress. Does the sight of the tail make us flinch in horror, too? Are we as appalled as the dancers who scream and run out of the club when they see the tail? Are we more willing than they to accept the different?

On the morning after she has sex with Petya, Natasha walks on the street with the tail out in the open. The camera is at her back. It is almost like Isabelle Adjani in Francois Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H.,” wandering through the town in a state of madness after losing love, when everyone who sees her averts his eyes and moves away. But unlike Adele H. and other tragic heroines of romantic dramas whose souls are blasted by obsession, Natasha is required to pay the price of her individuality without enjoying love at all. And the viewer, for his part, who, thanks to the fine performance by Natalia Mokritskaya as Natasha, responds to the fantastic dimension of “Zoology,” finds himself in a moment of confrontation with Kafkaesque horror.

Since Tverdovsky has fashioned our identification with Natasha, this is the horror of identifying with the other that leads to being-other and at the same time to non-acceptance of the other, the horror of the lack of human compassion and of paralyzing cruelty. In this sense, “Zoology” is not only an allegory of conformist Russia in the Putin era.

Screenings: “United States of Love,” Sat at 14.00, Tikotin Museum; “Zoology,” Sun at 12.00, Krieger Performing Arts Center. Festival website: www.haifaff.co.il