Tomasz Wasilewski’s relentlessly bleak United States Of Love is a crushing work of cinema.
It’s set in Poland during 1990, the Soviet empire has collapsed and the Berlin wall has come down in neighbouring Germany, but there’s very little liberation for the four women of Wasilewski’s film. Their lives intertwine but their personal experiences are felt in isolation. There’s a loneliness that pervades and stifles each of their lives.
Agata’s husband doesn’t understand her. As she cries in empty rooms with her back to the camera, it’s difficult for us to make sense of her too. In spite of their physical relationship - something Agata (Julia Kijowska) doesn’t appear to enjoy - an emotional void divides them. Instead she heaps infatuation on the local priest, humiliating herself and her family.
The film’s second story belongs to Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) who’s involved with a married man. Recently widowed, he shuns her and she endures his physical and emotional abuse. Then there’s Iza’s sister, Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz), a dance and fitness teacher who finds brief freedom while looking into the lens of a camera. Marzena’s illusions are shattered in the most devastating way of all.
United States Of Love is jammed with brave performances and Wasilewski enhances their depressing emotion with stark sets and cinematography. The opening sequence looks like an old black and white photograph where the the details are hand painted in. The whole film plays out in muted colours, infused with greys and bleached out. A handful of scenes are almost entirely black and white, while those offering the women a little hope are splashed with bright colour. Only inside the apartment of Renata - Marzena’s lonely neighbour - do we find something softer. Pink canaries, flowers and abundant plant life are a welcome relief. At the same time they underline Renatta’s desperation: a longing for intimacy that tips over into voyeurism.
Through these bleak stories Wasilewski explores how the arts, society and religion approach the idea of love and result in female oppression. A priest tells us ‘love will be the most important thing in your lives’, another reminds us how difficult it is. For the women of Wasilewski’s film, suffering is love’s essential component, life is fulfilled only as wives and mothers. The disturbing finale is without a shred of hope. The credits roll in total silence.
It takes a particular kind of stamina to sit through such utterly joyless subject matter but United States Of Love was awarded Best Screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival with good reason. Wasilewski asks us to meditate on his ideas. Shocking events are passed over without comment and with little ceremony. His parallel storytelling requires us to stitch the four stories together: in doing so we find a healing moment of sisterly love. While those in and around the film industry debate cinema’s gender bias, United States Of Love provides a powerful and valuable message.
l United States Of Love is on limited release from 18 November 2016 and is also available for online rental at the same time as cinemas.