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Saturday 7 January 2017

United States of Love (Zjednoczone stany miłości) , Film, Poland 2015, written and directed by Tomasz Wasilewski, 8* out of 10

United States of Love masterfully presents a slow-moving, beautifully acted drama of women in pursuit of women’s sexual obsession, desire and love. Great direction and photography capture a personal sadness in an atmosphere of hopeful political departure. Be warned though: if you do not leave the cinema depressed after seeing this movie, you must have been ingesting something very special before you sat down to watch it.   

Poland in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Politically, things seem possible, that no one had dared to dream of only a short time ago. While trust in existing institutions and conventions is collapsing, every day-life continues. Yet, for the four women who are protagonists in Tomasz Wasilewski’s film the political and social atmosphere of departure gives the impetus to follow desires that lay deep within them, perhaps dormant but certainly unpursued until now. Agata (Julia Kijowska) caught in a marriage that has become unhappy for her is obsessed with the young, attractive roman-catholic priest, who teaches her teenage daughter. The respected head-teacher Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) has a long-standing secret affair with a physician who is the father of one of her pupils. When his wife dies, she is sure that her love for him will turn into a happy marriage. But the ruthless doctor has other ideas. Iza’s sister, Marzena (Marta Niradkiewicz), a former beauty-queen, is waiting for the return of her husband from Germany - or to be called to join him. Marzena’s neighbour, Renata (Dorta Kolak), a teacher at Iza’s school, meanwhile finds the courage to pursue the crush she has had on Marzena ever since she laid eyes on her.

Against a bleak and hopeless architectural, meteorological background and faced by men that range from baffled (and tepid) via clueless (and cold) to brutal (and icy), the women in United States of Love, are made to suffer relentlessly. In all the scenes in which a priest appears he speaks of the centrality of love, its beauty its importance, its heavenliness. But in key-scene a student raises his hand and asks the priest: “And, have you ever had sex?”.  

At the heart of United States of Love there is a striking contrast between the idealized love praised by the men of the church and the abject failure of the attempts at the pursuit of earthly love with men by intelligent, practical women. It is this contrast and the tension between political optimism and personal misery which make this fittingly slow-moving drama both impactful and deeply depressing. 

Direction, photography and the understated form, in which the excellent acting performances, none of them stronger than Magdalena Ciliecka’s, are captured, all reinforce the tragedy of women’s disappointments when it comes to living their love, desires and obsessions. 

United States of Love won the prize for best screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival, but if you’re looking for any light relief in adversity, you won’t find it here.

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