Tag Archives: Polish

271. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Sanatorium pod Klepsydra; AKA The Sandglass

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. “–Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 1

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: As the film opens, Józef is on a train headed to a sanatorium where his dead father is being kept. When he arrives, the grounds are deserted and decrepit, but eventually he finds a doctor who leads him to his now-sleeping father’s room and explains the patient’s comatose-but-alive status: “the trick is that we moved back time… we reactivate past time with all its possibilities.” Józef then wanders through the sanatorium’s grounds, meeting his mother, a collector of automatons, a parade of men dressed in bird costumes, the Three Wise Men, and other strange characters.

Still from The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was primarily based on Polish Surrealist author Bruno Schultz’s short-story collection “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass,” although it included ideas from some of the author’s other short stories. (A Schulz story was also the inspiration for the ‘ stop-animation nightmare “The Street of Crocodiles“).
  • Wojciech Has worked on this project for five years.
  • The Hourglass Sanatorium did not receive the blessing of the Polish censors and was banned. Has had copies smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival, where it tied for the jury prize (at that time, essentially third place). In apparent retaliation for his insubordination, the Communist Party did not approve any of Has’ new film projects for the next ten years.
  • In Poland, an hourglass is a symbol of death.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, especially given how visually sumptuous The Hourglass Sanatorium is, the image which best evokes the movie isn’t even in it. I speak of the famous theatrical release poster by Polish artist Franciszek Starowieyski, which depicts a giant orange eyeball perched on a jawbone, with a grill of teeth through which a worm crawls (a limbless woman’s torso is also stuck between its molars), while numbers and arrows illustrate features of bone anatomy like occult footnotes. The poster seizes upon the film’s major theme of death; Starowieyski was also picking up on the repeated motif of eyeballs which occurs throughout the Sanatorium, from the train conductor’s blind stare to the cobweb-covered eyeball collection Józef finds under the bed. To illustrate the film, we ultimately chose the image of a toppled wax automaton with his eye-socket popped open to reveal the gears inside—but when I think of The Hourglass Sanatorium, I always think of that poster first.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crow frozen in flight; Józef spying on Józef; eyeballs under the bed

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Hourglass Sanatorium is a rare work of genuine Surrealism. Seldom has any film ever captured the free-falling feeling of being lost in a dream so well: the portentous but inexplicable visions; the tenuous, tantalizing connections between ideas; the smooth and continuous shifting of realities. Let a blind conductor be your guide inside a crumbling hospital whose rooms hold wonder after wonder.


Brief clip from The Hourglass Sanatorium (in Polish)

COMMENTS: Sanatorium pod Klepsydra opens on the silhouette of a Continue reading 271. THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

Rekopis Znaleziony w Saragossie

“Simultaneously erotic, horrific and funny… This is one mother of a film.”– on The Saragossa Manuscript

Must See

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Zbigniew Cybulski

PLOT: During a battle in Saragossa during the Napoleonic Wars, a soldier wanders into a house and discovers a large book which enthralls him (and his captor). In it, he reads the story of the Walloon captain Alfons Van Worden, who meets, and is seduced by, two princesses while sleeping at a haunted inn, only to wake up under a gallows between two hanged men. Van Worden’s further adventures include meeting a hermit, a cabalist, a gypsy leader, and other colorful characters, each of whom have tales to tell—often leading to stories inside of stories.

Still from The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Saragossa Manuscript is a mostly faithful, if necessarily abridged, adaptation of Jan Potocki’s massive 19th-century novel “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa” (occasionally translated as “The Saragossa Manuscript: A Collection of Weird Tales”). Potcoki was a fascinating character, worthy of his own novel. A Count, adventurer (he was the first Pole to fly in a hot air balloon) and polymath, he published The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in fragments during his life. Legends revolve around his spectacular 1815 suicide: he shot himself with a silver bullet he made himself, and which he had blessed by his castle chaplain beforehand.
  • Noted fans of the film include and David Lynch.
  • The restoration, which included the addition of about an hour’s worth of material cut from previous prints, was initially financed by The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, who died before it was completed in 2001. Filmmakers  and (who included it in his series “Masterpieces of Polish Cinema”) took up the cause after Garcia’s demise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Near the film’s climax, Van Worden stares out through an gap in a castle wall and sees a vision of himself receding into the distance with the two princesses, headed towards a poster bed standing alone in the middle of a desert. The only other features in the landscape are a cow’s skull and a dead crow half buried in the sand. There’s a wonderful trick to the shot, indicative of the film’s obsession with misdirection and game playing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Between hanged men; incestuous Islamic princesses; five levels of flashbacks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Saragossa Manuscript winds through a Gothic journey replete with gallows, ghostly seductresses, duels, occult symbols, Inquisitors in bondage gear, and more, an epic tale told in the ever-receding stories-inside-of-stories style that Guy Maddin would later adopt (in a more fetishistic fashion) for The Forbidden Room. Wojciech Has’ 3-hour adaptation of Jan Potocki’s grandiose novel is storytelling in its purest form; it’s a world cinema classic that has been unfairly neglected, out-of-print in the USA for far too long. The film’s design unfolds slowly, wandering through a disorienting labyrinth of stories that eventually resolve, only to dissolve again in a mystical finale in the Spanish desert.


Re-release trailer for The Saragossa Manuscript

COMMENTS: “All that has made me confused,” complains Captain Continue reading 265. THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT (1965)

LIST CANDIDATE: ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)

Na Srebrnym Globie

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jerzy Trela, Andrzej Seweryn, Iwona Bielska, Grazyna Dylaq, Jerzy Gralek, Krystyna Janda, Elizabeth Karkoszka, Maciej Goraj, Leszek Dlugosz, Jan Frycz

PLOT: An expedition crash lands on a planet, and the surviving astronauts establish a tribe and a religion explaining their origins. After a recording of the crash is found, another astronaut, Marek, is sent to investigate and is received as a messiah whose arrival has been prophesied. He becomes involved in a struggle against the planet’s original inhabitants, a birdlike race called the Sherms.

Still from On the Silver Globe

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of the few science-fiction adaptations that can earn the adjective of “epic,” and not only in terms of not dumbing down its ideas in favor of effects. The Polish government attempted to kill it, and end its director’s career. Despite it being only 80% of a finished film, there are images that will remain in the mind long after.

COMMENTS: In the best of all possible worlds, On the Silver Globe would be more widely known for the epic saga it is intended to be rather than as an unfinished curiosity, and it would’ve been the blueprint for science-fiction cinema to follow, rather than George Lucas’ Star Wars. Or possibly not. After all, its source material, “The Lunar Trilogy” written by Jerzy Zulawski (Andrzej’s great-uncle), which Stanislaw Lem acknowledged as an influence on his own writing, STILL has never gotten an English translation, making it unknown in the U.S. and other English speaking countries. This is one of the few films where its backstory is as fascinating as the actual film.

To wit: after the success of The Most Important Thing Is to Love, the exiled Zulawski was allowed to return to Poland to work. It was at this time that his marriage collapsed and his wife left (we’ll get to that later on…), and he chose to adapt his great uncle’s trilogy. Two years of work went into the enterprise, with most of the shooting done in 1976 and 1977, until the Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Janusz Wilhelmi, saw some of the footage and in June 1977, ordered the production to shut down. Props, scenery and costumes were warehoused and/or destroyed; Zulawski was once again persona non grata in Poland, couldn’t get any work, and was again forced to leave home. (Out of this experience came the cult favorite Possession). Wilhelmi died in a plane crash the following year (1978), but despite several attempts to resurrect the project, authorities refused to release the existing material; some of the crew members managed to save what they could, but to no avail. By 1986, the regime in Poland had collapsed, but it was too late—too much material had been lost, several actors had died, and cinematic sci-fi was by then firmly caught in the throes of Star Wars‘s aftermath. However, what was left of the film could indeed be presented in some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGELUS (2000)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jan Siodlaczek, Pawel Steinert, Daniel Skowronek, Tadeusz Plawecki

PLOT: Just before dying, the Rosicrucian master of a cult of painters in the Polish mining town of Katowice predicts WWII, Stalinism, the atom bomb, and the end of the world via a death ray shot from Saturn.

Still from Angelus (2000)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Lech Majewski seems like the kind of aggressively surreal filmmaker who should be represented with a spot somewhere on the List, and with its mix of Eastern European mysticism and historical absurdism, Angelus is likely the top candidate in his oeuvre—so far, at least.

COMMENTS: Composed of a series of snapshots rather than a typical flowing narrative, Angelus features an extensive gallery of nearly-static tableaux, accompanied by voiceover narration. Many of the compositions, especially those shot outdoors, recall the meticulous constructions of (including the use of splice-editing to cause objects to suddenly materialize on screen). Scenes like the one where a young boy stands eating a roll in the foreground while seven painters stand stock-still in the background, flanking a nude woman who sits on an improvised stage draped in red velvet as the sun rises over a hilltop, inevitably evoke the adjective “painterly.”

As a historical allegory on the fate of post-war Poland, the movie ridicules the absurdities of both Nazism (Hitler is seen soaking his feet in a swastika-bottomed basin) and, for most of its running time, of Stalinism. The cult members (who can actually perform small-scale miracles) hold to their apocalyptic faith in the face of persecution, and guardian angels wander through the landscape offering advice and consolation. Angelus starts off very strong, introducing us to a series of quirky cultists in a highly peculiar situation, but by the time Stalin arrives, it loses much of its narrative momentum, sinking into relatively mundane subplots about life under the Communist regime. One of the cultists has an insatiable sexual appetite, another is an aspiring alchemist sworn to celibacy and who calls his girlfriend “man,” there are dances, the young narrator falls in love with the only pretty maiden in the village, and there is a half-hearted plan to build a modern version of Noah’s Ark. Much of the middle section of the film gets lost in these digressions, which sometimes seem like they would be at home in a more naturalistic-minded film, until we finally circle back to the death-ray-from-Saturn plot. It all ends in an unusually abrupt fashion.

Billed as a “komedia metafizyczna,” the film’s main purpose is to demonstrate the resilience of man’s spiritual nature under even the most repressive social orders. The cult’s beliefs may be ludicrous, but they are soulful, and despite their oddities their dogmas are far preferable to the equally absurd ideologies designed by cynical dictators as tools of subjugation.

Angelus is available in a region-free DVD with English subtitles, although the menus are exclusively in Polish. The seller I bought it from included a handy “cheat sheet” with Polish-to-English translations to help with navigation. This article from a Polish culture website describes the historical Silesian cult that inspired Majewski’s story.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A comical, artistic, absurd and surreal portrait of a cult/communal culture in historial Silesia of the 20th Century… A unique experience…”–Zev Toledano, “The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre” (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by NGBoo, who called it a “mix of unorthodox comedy, absurd drama & fantastic mystery,” and who got tired of waiting for our review and wrote it up himself [in Serbo-Croatian, unfortunately]. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

Diabel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Leszak Teleszynski, Wojciech Pszoniak, Malgorzata Braunek, Monika Niemczyk, Wiktor Sadecki, Iga Mayr, Anna Parzonka, Maciej Englert, Bozena Miefiodow

PLOT: In 1793, during the Prussian Army’s invasion of Poland, an imprisoned anti-royalist nobleman, Jakub, is freed by a Stranger-in-Black, for reasons unknown. Returning to his home and family, he finds only chaos and madness: his father dead, sister insane, his mother a prostitute, and his former fiance pregnant and now married to his best friend. Encouraged by the Stranger who comes and goes at will, Jakub starts dealing out some hardcore revenge with a straight razor and slipping further into madness; but, who is this Stranger and what exactly is his game?

diabel-3

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is perhaps the first Zulawski film that has most of the elements that he became known for in place. From the opening frame onward, it is completely balls-to-the-wall in intensity, making ‘s The Devils look like a model of restraint.

COMMENTS: “Tell me, does the world seem horrible to me because of my illness or because it is really like that?”

Zulawski’s second feature film was banned in Poland for 18 years (!) and essentially got him exiled to France. In an interview with Stephen Thrower and Daniel Bird for “Eyeball Magazine,” Zulawski explains the how and why of it.

At that time (1971),  a tragedy happened in Poland in this very repressive and bloody regime. A part of the Communist establishment wanted to seize power. In order to do this they devised a very clever trick. They provoked youth – innocent, naive university youth especially – to start a series of protests on the streets against censorship, lack of freedom. They did it on purpose. Then the Communists turned to the Russians, the landlords, saying ‘this government of Poland cannot control the population, so you have to fire them and take us because we know how to deal with them.’ They organized a savage repression of the Polish young people in March 1968… they destroyed the university education system and this generation of young people who were trapped into this protest went into oblivion. They are nothing today; they were never educated, they went to jail, etc. So I wanted to tell this story but obviously I couldn’t say it with the Polish government’s money. So I put it under the masks and costumes of the 18th Century, when several tragedies annihilated Poland and the situation was about the same. It’s the story of a police provocateur who infiltrates a group of young people preparing something patriotic and beautiful and who just destroys the whole thing.

Obviously, the authorities twigged quickly that The Devil was not the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

ANDRZEJ ZULAWSKI – A BRIEF INTRO

04ZULAWSKI1_SPAN-articleLargeIf you’re a regular reader of 366 Weird Movies, you know the name and you know the movie… the name is , and the movie is 1981’s Possession (controversially reviewed here earlier as a List Candidate). If you’re a dedicated cineaste, you might’ve found some of Zulawski’s other work, which wasn’t easy to find in the U.S. a decade or so ago.  Even with a recent retrospective of his films in L.A., N.Y.C. and several other North American cities, Zulawski remains largely a cult figure in the USA: neither of his novels, his book-length interview, nor any full-length analysis of his work are available in English at the current time.

Interest in Zulawski has increased steadily in the Oughts, however, mainly due to DVD. The home video company Mondo Vision has dedicated itself to quality releases of Zulawski’s movies for the North American market, and the dedicated film fan with an all-region player can look overseas to fill in the gaps. Even searching on YouTube can produce some useful results. And with post-production currently going on with Cosmos, Zulawski’s first feature in 15 years (since 2000’s Fidelity), we’ll likely see more interest in late 2015/early 2016, when the movie starts making festival rounds and/or general release.

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot more to Zulawski than just Possession.

Zulawski  grew up in Prague, Warsaw and Paris, and attended film school in France in the late 1950’s. He credits  for recommending him to director Andrzej Wajda as an assistant director on Wajda’s Samson (1961). He continued in that position throughout Wajda’s next few projects: the “Warsaw” segment of the 1962 anthology film L’ amour a Vingt Ans (Love at Twenty) (credited as 2nd Unit Director) and 1965’s Popiolu (The Ashes), and served in the same role for Anatole Litvak on The Night of the Generals (1966). His first directing efforts were two adaptations of short stories for Polish television, “Pavoncello” (1967) and “Piesn triumfujacej milosci” (“The Story of Triumphant Love,” 1969).

Andrzej Zulawski

LINKS:

andrzej-zulawski.com – a fan-site that’s in dire need of some updating; 2007 is the most recent year represented…

Facebook – probably the best place to find updated information on Zulawski; photos from the production of Cosmos have been posted

Mondo Vision – North American company producing R1 Zulawski home media

Instytut Ksiazki (Polish Book Institute) – excerpts in English from book length Zulawski interview by Piotr Kletowski & Piotr Marecki

Andrzej Korzynski – Composer for several Zulawski films; YouTube page featuring tracks.

The Unbelievable Genius of Andrzej Zulawski – the Cinefamily’s hosting of the first North American retrospective of Zulawski in 2013

Interview – with Zulawski and Daniel Bird at Fantasia 2013

LIST CANDIDATE: THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM (1973)

Recommended

Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra; AKA The Hour-glass Sanitorium; The Sandglass

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Jan Nowicki, Jozef Kondrat, Irena Orska, Halina Kowalska, Gustaw Holoubek, Ludwik Benoit, Mieczyslaw Voit

Still from The Hourglass Sanitorium (1973)

PLOT: Adapted from several stories by Bruno Schulz, the movie follows Joseph (Nowicki) as he travels by train to a sanitarium to see his dead father. At this particular institution, time is altered, so his father can still be alive within, while in the outside world his death has already occurred; and while waiting for his father’s death to catch up, Joseph appears to go through incidents in his own past, as time curls in on itself.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Surreal and dream-like, this is probably one of the most artistically successful films of its type—a picturesque journey into death.

COMMENTS: Wojciech Jerzy Has’ two best known films are also the only ones readily available to Western audiences, that other film being The Saragossa Manuscript (1965). Both are challenging adaptations of literary works thought to be unfilmable. These two movies alone would make impressive bookends in any filmmaker’s career, yet these were made almost a decade apart, and Has’ other films reportedly retain a similar level of quality.

Sanitorium is visually sumptuous, due to the cinematography of Witold Sobocinski and the production design by Andrzej Plocki and Jerzy Skarzynski. Viewers who are attracted to the visual artistry of  will find much to like and admire here, though the similarity ends there—while Gilliam is no stranger to dark themes in his works, even in the darkest times, he leaves a small light on. Sanitorium doesn’t allow even that minor level of comfort.

The opening image of the film—a silhouette of a bird in mid-air flight, yet seemingly suspended in place–is probably the most potent metaphor for the journey that Joseph takes. Essentially it’s a metaphoric traverse through life to its inevitable end—death—and also an observation of the same journey of an entire culture, in this case the Jews in Europe prior to the start of World War II. While there is no explicit or obvious symbolism present, no swastikas or any mention of the rise of Nazism, the film supports that reading. As Josef goes through various incidents in his childhood, we see the rich life of the community in prosperous times, and as time and decay progresses, so does that community. The last glimpse we see is Joseph witnessing  an exodus of people from town—from what is never specified, although one can surmise, if one knows history.

Sanitorium doesn’t spell itself out for the audience, and that may be the biggest hurdle for viewers, who will either overcome it or throw up their hands in frustration. We go along for the mad journey with Joseph, and the movie makes no concession to the viewer whatsoever. It is the kind of film that yields rewards with multiple viewings, and it probably helps to know Bruno Schulz and something about his work.

Unlike The Saragossa Manuscript, Sanitorium never got an official Region 1 DVD release. The UK DVD company  Mr. Bongo has issued a restored version—“restored” in this context meaning a digital remastering under the supervision of cinematographer Sobocinski. The disc is a Region 0 PAL release, so it should be playable on most computers and some (hacked) DVD/Blu-ray players—check your specs.

Journey to the Underworld – an essay by Steve Mobia with an interpretation of the film, and mention of Has’ other films.

www.schulzian.net – site featuring translations of Schulz’s stories and links.

Wikipedia entry

IMDb entry

CAPSULE: THE FOURTH DIMENSION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: , Aleksei Fedorchenko, Jan Kwiecinski

FEATURING: , Igor Sergeev,

PLOT: An anthology of three stories: a lecture by an American motivational speaker; a man invents a time machine but can only watch events through someone else’s eyes; and four Poles party in a town that’s been evacuated ahead of a flood.

Still from The Fourth Dimension (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three tales are only mildly weird, and only mildly interesting.

COMMENTS: “Lotus Community Workshop,” the much-anticipated team-up between actor Val Kilmer and director Harmony Korine, is obviously the main draw in this triptych of timely tales, but unfortunately (and perhaps predictably, given the hype) it disappoints. Kilmer plays a motivational speaker whose nonsensical rhetoric nonetheless thrills a motley crowd of ordinary people at a neon-washed roller rink. In between inspirational snippets we see him contentedly riding a bicycle, piping on a flute, and playing a videogame with a girlfriend played by  (who would be too young for the fiftyish Kilmer even at her real age of 26—she looks and acts like a teenager here). Kilmer, who goes as gonzo as the limited space allows, gives some absurd and mildly amusing advice—he tells the assemblage about the time he encountered the mothership, advises them to stop riding horses and to bury gold under their bathtubs, and describes his vision of a world like cotton candy—but the satire seems more pointless than pointed, and the quiet scenes add nothing. This is Harmony Korine with all the shock value removed, and what remains is uninspiring. Putting Korine first gave film festival poseurs a chance to sneak out early, which is sad because the succeeding films are at least as interesting and might even be slight improvements. The second installment, “Chronoeye,” is the only short here that addresses the concept of “the fourth dimension” head on. It concerns a Russian genius who has built a time machine, but it only allows him to see events through someone else’s eyes, and he can’t pick his vantage point; so, for example, he goes back in time to view the execution of scientific martyr Giordano Bruno, but sees it through the eyes of a little girl who’s focusing on a ladybug. Meanwhile, a tax collector is trying to carve a pound of flesh out of him, while his upstairs neighbor is a beautiful dancer who keeps annoying him as she pounds on the floor practicing for an upcoming recital. The joke about focusing on insignificant details of major historical events is repetitive, but Igor Sergeev sells it with an expression of increasing frustration with every new failure. We in the audience become as frustrated as he is, because we see events from his past whose significance will never be clear to us. An abrupt but mysterious ending mixes up past, present and future. The finale “Fawns” follows a group of opportunistic young hipsters as they treat a town that’s been evacuated ahead of a flood as their own private playground. At close to forty minutes it’s longer than the other two offerings, but much of the opening is spent just watching the youngsters roam around the deserted suburbs whooping, playing on swings and looting soda shops. Eventually, a plot develops as one of the quartet wanders away without explanation and the remaining trio must decide whether to search for him or flee as the blare of sirens and rumble of helicopters, heralds of the encroaching floodwaters, increase in their insistency. Then, a chance encounter throws a moral monkey wrench into their plans for a clean escape. It ends, as expected, on an ambiguous note. Each of these offerings raise a mild degree of interest, but none of them truly succeed as standalone efforts, nor do they mesh well together. The “fourth dimension” theme is used as a joke by Korine and treated obviously by Fedorchenko, while Kwiecinski merely name-checks the concept. The Fourth Dimension doesn’t meet its lofty goal of “challenging our ideas of 4th dimensions,” unless, of course, your idea of the fourth dimension is that it’s inherently fascinating, in which case you can consider that notion shot down.

The idea for The Fourth Dimension was co-sponsored by Grolsch beer and Vice Magazine. Each of the three filmmakers were given a set of rules to follow; those we see quoted in the film include that each director’s segment “must contain more real life than anything else you have ever made” and “must blur the line between what is real and what is fake.” Other dogmas, reportedly, were that each director must direct one scene blindfolded. At the time of this writing, the film is exclusively available to watch (for free) on Vice‘s YouTube channel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a tour de force of what seems to be improvisational lunacy from the behatted, bicycling Kilmer, whose performance has fewer concrete things to say about Los Angeles, con jobs or mass therapy than it does about the merits of watching a gifted actor walk a high wire.”–John Anderson, Variety (contemporaneous)

.

.

CAPSULE: @SUICIDEROOM (2011)

Sala Samobójców, AKA Suicide Room

DIRECTED BY: Jan Komasa

FEATURING: Jakub Gierszal, Agata Kulesza, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Roma Gasiorowska-Zurawska

PLOT: When a spoiled rich boy is mocked after an embarrassing high school incident publicly

Still from @suicide room (2011)

reveals his homosexual desires, he retreats into a virtual world, a community called “suicide room” full of teens trying to work up the courage to kill themselves.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The hallucinatory virtual reality episodes that look like video captures from “Sims 3: Depressed Emo Kid Expansion Pack” add a novelty and curiosity factor, but @suicideroom isn’t weird at its core: it’s an earnest look at teen depression and suicide.

COMMENTS: Call it a gimmick if you must, but @suicideroom‘s animated sequences are the drawing card rather than a distraction in this teen depression drama. Without the virtual reality wrinkle, this Polish import would play a bit like a suicide-prevention after-school special with a budget, complete with almost comically uninvolved, clueless parents and an appropriately over-emoting tortured teen. The backstory is simple enough. Dominik is handsome, popular and privileged. He’s already got a date for the prom and a private chauffeur supplied by his absentee parents. He’s got everything a slightly-Bieberish looking kid could want, and is the last guy in his class who you’d expect to suffer from depression—but after a male-on-male dare-kiss goes viral, he quickly goes from heartthrob to pariah. And here’s where things get a little strange. Dominik retreats to his room, where after thrashing about a bit and beating his mattress in despair, a chat window pops up on his laptop and invites him to join an online community. After personalizing his avatar he finds himself set loose in an impossibly detailed virtual nightclub, chasing a comely toon with pink hair; they go to video chat and he meets Sylwia, a weepy blonde shut-in wearing a plastic mask who is also the proprietress of the “Suicide Room.” Sylwia is both a character in the real-life story and a symbol of the romantic allure of youthful melancholia; there is a mysterious, allegorical feel to her unlikely online recruitment/seduction of Dominik. Once Dominik is initiated into the secret suicide society, any pretense that this is a real virtual community disappears; the impossibly fluid and responsive world of Suicide Room follows the rules of an animated cartoon, not the clunky mechanics of online community like World of Warcraft. Characters fight ridiculously complicated anime-inspired duels seen through multiple angles and split-screens, sail over oceans of polygonal waves, and turn into howling banshees when they get angry. What we see is the online world as embellished by Dominik’s imagination, a wired existence that’s realer and more appealing to him than the harsh realities of the world outside his door. The stylistic strategy could be described either as “virtual magical realism” or “digital Expressionism.” Whatever you call it, it may be in fact too successful, since whenever we’re following Dominik’s “real” story we’re always looking forward to our next trip inside the dreamlike magical box for a peek at what the electronic pixies have been up to in our absence. Unfortunately, nothing good can last, and Dominik’s return to the real world when his Internet is pulled ends in tragedy, and with a phone number for a suicide prevention hotline. It’s not entirely clear whether the director means to criticize social media for encouraging isolation from the real world and allowing the spread of dangerous ideas like suicide-promotion support groups, or whether its prominence in the story simply reflects teen reality at this point in history. Regardless, such musings add a bit more interest to this well-intentioned, semi-successful, slightly odd drama that may resonate with the younger crowd.

While it’s a worthwhile watch, @suicideroom is a tough movie to market outside of its native Poland. In the U.S.A., emo went out of style in November 2011, exactly one year after silly bandz, and even the most depressed American teenager would watch that Katy Perry movie before tuning in to a subtitled Polish film with opera on the soundtrack.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

…helmer-writer Jan Komasa overplays his hand… ultimately creating an unsympathetic protagonist whose fate doesn’t inspire much interest… Replete with bizarre avatars, the pic’s slick animated segments convey the feeling of being inside an online sword-and-sorcery game.”–Alissa Simon, Variety (contemporaneous)