Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love may take place just after 1989’s felling of the Berlin Wall but little of the era’s euphoric optimism transfers to the Polish writer-director’s dispassionate yet engrossing third feature. Broken down into loosely formed chapters whose pages overlap and intersect with purposeful randomness, Wasilewski’s film sees his nation on the point of transition from its barren communist past to a new era of potential enlightenment: clothes, electronic goods and Whitney Houston posters no less. However, it is the day to day lives and struggles of four women who are our focus.
Routines of work, husbands, children’s schooling and the austerity of overbearing religion all provide a framework for their existence but this merely constitutes a front for repressed, incommunicable desires and anxieties. Taken behind closed doors – three of the women live in the same monumental apartment building – there is an inner fragility to all whom we meet which risks fracturing at any moment. Dropped into dinner party conversation with Agata (Julia Kijowska), her husband Jacek (Lukasz Simlat) and friends, an early line suggesting that a largely colourless pair of acid-wash jeans are “too bright” induces an ironical guffaw from a spectator. Cinematographer Oleg Mutu, whose most known work is perhaps Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, drains the film to such an extent that figures around the table appear almost ghostly, such is their lack of vitamin D.
Thick plumes of smoke further blanket the muted palette in cloudy greys. This unhealthy porcelain skin tone is echoed in frozen exteriors where a roaming camera follows people with hunched shoulders braced against the cold, trudging to the factory, church or school. Few are leaping for joy as East meets West in 1990 here. There’s a definite irony to the film’s title as characters who pass like ships in the night are more often than not drifting ever further apart rather than moving closer together. As Jacek gets into the bath, Agata vacates; arms are frequently crossed; glances betray no tenderness and people pass uncomfortably in doorways.
There is an unspoken “before” here that casts a pall over daily life which will never be made clear. The regime? Something more personal? And all of a sudden a fiercely passionate, entirely loveless sex scenes breaks the monotony. What is this couple’s state of love? The why in all areas is left opaque throughout but none more so than in chapter two where a doctor buries his wife. Was her death a suicide? Did she find out about his long-running affair with school headmistress Iza (a strikingly elegant but waspish Magdalena Cielecka)? There is less subtlety to this thread but in her jealousy and resentment, and in one steadily held Mutu long-shot, her character provokes the film’s most devastating moment.
The performances are uniformly excellent but it is Dorota Kolak, as schoolteacher Renata, who really raises the bar. Her bitter loneliness, through wounded eyes and a timid forced smile and the engineering of a friendship by any means necessary is awful to behold but supremely well articulated. Not all of the longing here is of a sexual nature and her care for misguided young neighbour Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz) may have its ulterior motives given her seclusion but it does offer the faintest glimmer of positivity in this chilling, remarkable human drama. Wasilewski is a name to watch out for given the extraordinary maturity of his United States of Love.