The word pokolenie (generation) invariably pops up in discussions of recent Polish film, particularly Portret podwójny. Andrew James Horton asks if Front's debut succeeds in capturing the spirit of this generation that everyone seems to be after.
Whilst much attention has been placed on the trauma caused by financial restructuring of the central and east European film industry since 1989, little thought is given to the artistic dimensions. A lack of cash has sometimes been used to cover up one of the basic problems in post-communist cinema—that the new generation has yet to find a voice to successfully express themselves and portray the dramatic changes Europe is going through. There's certainly been nothing in Polish cinema that resembles the sudden turning point that Andrzej Wajda presented with his debut Generation (Pokolenie, 1954). Yet the concept of representing the new pokolenie, with Wajda's film as something of a benchmark, is something of a holy grail in the Polish film world. Over the last few years, for example, a series of one-hour films by debut directors was commissioned by Telewizja Polska under the banner Pokolenie 2000.
Mariusz Front was obviously mindful of this hype when he made his Portret podwójny (Double Portrait, 2001). Indeed, at the beginning of the film the actor Maciej Adamczyk, representing himself rather than his character, states that he talks for himself and not for his generation, something he reiterated in a post-screening discussion held at FilmFestival Cottbus, where the picture was in competition. How much, though, does this bear up under close scrunity?
At its most basic level, Portret podwójny's double view is of that of two young lives: Ewa and Michał. Ewa is trying to break into the world of modelling, while Michał is trying to get his first film made. Neither of them are having much luck, though, and they both end up working at the same supermarket—she giving customers free samples of grilled salmon and he stacking shelves. Michał, in place of the feature he would love to make, captures the everyday world around him on compact digital video camera. The two soon become lovers, and we are taken into their idyllic world as they find themselves flung head over heels.
But just as quickly as the idyll descends, it is broken. The two argue when Ewa talks about having children, an impossible proposition to Michał given their perilous financial state. The pair retreat to their respective families, Ewa for her grandmother's birthday and Michał to visit his son from a previous relationship and see his father's grave.
Back in Warsaw, Ewa becomes distressed by a pigeon trapped in a tree and harrangues the fire brigade to come and rescue it. By chance, Michał is passing and stops to watch, and film, the incident. An unexpected second life is given to their delicate relationship, as to the pigeon, whose soaring point of view over Warsaw the film ends with.
A hand-held camera orgy
Portret podwójny is a film that is thin on "plot" but high in texture. Switching constantly between steady 35mm and dancing hand-held digital, the picture is restless, sometimes hyperactive, and ever-inquisitive about the details of life. The images are simple and often mundane, and it shows Front's talent as a film-maker (and editor—post-production took a massive eight months) that has conquered the essential problem of filming the everyday—namely the need to reveal the familiar and ordinary as engrossing. He can dwell for a few minutes on, say, a street scene with no dialogue or Ewa endlessly reciting her supermarket mantra about the joys of grilled salmon without dragging the film down to the level of boredom. Moreover, the manipulation of mood and tone is striking.
If international viewers find the film irritating (and some do), it is because of the heavy reliance on the hand-held aesthetic. To give an example of the extreme to which this is used, at one point Ewa and Michał place their digital camera on a shelf so they can film themselves painting a wall, yet the resulting image we see of them, supposedly through the video camera, dances around them and cuts between different angles. In addition, some of the early scenes in which Michał discusses the making of his film (including a Polish producer playing himself and reciting the same advice that he gave to Front when he first saw the script for Portret podwójny) lack the freshness and observational power of everyday reality.
It's probably true to say that in view of its hand-held aesthetic Portret podwójny has emerged at the wrong time. The effect is now well-worn with audiences that are well-versed in Dogme films and at the same time we are too close to the present to recognise that the DIY digital aesthetic for its own sake will become a hallmark of the late 1990s and early years of this century. I suspect in years to come, audiences might look rather more kindly on Front's camerawork, recognising that, while it belongs to a specific period and was not by any means the first to exploit an aesthetic effect, it is a skilful use of the device.
Capturing the epoch
For those that don't find the camerawork objectionable, there's more to the film than just being entranced by Front's eye for detail. The film explores the angst of our age, presenting us with the weakness of ourselves against harshness of the society we live in and contrasting images of who we are with who we should be.
A theme running throughout the film is the absence of father figures. The trope is most delightfully played out when Michał visits his son, who cannot comprehend why he sees so little of his father. The two make a model boat together, and Michał promises it will float. But when bathtime, comes the airfix model stays on the surface for only a few seconds before heading for the bottom of the tub, leaving the pair looking disconsolate, as much for the broken trust as for the lost vessel.
In another telling scene, Ewa, a fanatical animal-lover, tenderly and with much sincerity strokes the captive fish in a supermarket tank. Just minutes before she was persuading people to eat these majestic creatures.
The actor doth protest too much?
With so much observational detail about today's Poland and a set of relationships that are a microcosm of the society we live in, why would Adamczyk insist that he does not speak for his generation? At Cottbus, he pointed out that the film depicts people from a wide range of ages and is not just about today's youth. He also pointed out that the film was based on Front's own experiences, and it would be wrong to label Front's lifestyle as typical of his generation.
These are both fair comments. But on the other hand, there is good reason to resist them. Firstly, portraying a generation does not preclude looking at all ages in society. (Wajda's early films, for example, constantly look at how the new generation sits uneasily next to the old.) Secondly, portrayal of the specific may mean that the film does not factually represent a generation, but it may be a microcosm of it and possess its outlook.
The Polish film industry is still scrabbling for that hit film that will define the period as succinctly as Wajda's debut did in his day. This has led to a slew of films that pick up on contemporary issues but which seem made more in the spirit of the 1970s. The fusion of language and spirit has yet to truly come together in a way that is totally convincing and unique. In the meantime, Portret podwójny is the freshest and most original evocation of the current pokolenie to emerge in recent years from Poland.
Andrew James Horton
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