Małgorzata Szumowska has become a regular at the Berlinale. Both Strangers (2004) and Elles (2012) appeared in the festival’s Forum strand while in 2013 she won the Teddy Award for In the Name Of (2013), her uneven though novel examination of homosexuality within the Catholic church. With Body (2015), Szumowska presents us with three remarkably dissimilar individuals and entwines their lives around a narrative about grief, eating disorders and the belief in the afterlife. Body opens with a corpse hanging from a tree. After being cut down the cadaver miraculously gets up and walks away whilst the crime scene investigators ponder the correct procedure for removing the deceased.
This type of gallows humour is rife in Szumowska’s latest and culminates in a curiously disjointed tone that struggles to give credence to the film’s weightier themes – especially the psychological repercussion of grief and how this can be reflected physical in a society obsessed with image. Those who make their living flirting with catastrophe such as Janusz (Janusz Gajos), a gnarled attorney, often develop a faculty of pessimistic anticipation of what’s to come that’s all but indistinguishable from clairvoyance. It’s this understanding of mortality and the darkness that resides in a society grappling with its identify that brings Szumowska trio of protagonists together. We focus on the lives of Janusz, a widow of six years, his anorexic daughter Olga (Justyna Suwala) and her therapist Anna (Maja Ostaszewska).
Olga is at odds with her father and, after a desperate cry for help that leaves her limp and dangling from the edge of the toilet bowl, finds herself hospitalised. Anna senses the loss that keeps Janusz and Olga separated and offers her services as a spiritualist to cure the malaise that affects them both – albeit in visible different ways. Rendered in clean, unhurried lines, with a precision at once anatomical and emotional, Body’s formal composition helps counteract the droll whimsy and absurd comedy that manifests behind the film’s ice-cold façade. Sadly, this collision of black comedy and human tragedy comes across awkwardly, often feeling erroneous when the film attempts to explores grief through the complex psychopathology of anorexia.
Whilst Body’s failure to highlight the social and cultural constructs that lead to such cases of dysmorphia is forgiveable, the way the film uses anorexia as its central motif often feels borderline inappropriate. Szumowska is clearly fascinated by the body as a conduit for the soul, and more abstractly as a metaphor for national identity, with this corporeal study of grief and its observation of female insecurity easily readable as an attempt to delve into the recesses of the national psyche. Thankfully, this quirky drama’s erratic tone is realigned with its inquiry of bereavement by a beautifully simple final shot that somehow manages to fuses everything together – revealing that Szumowska’s latest has given itself to you, body and soul.
The 65th Berlin Film Festival takes place from 5-15 February 2015. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble