Director: Marcin Wrona
Stars: Italy Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska
3 (out of 5) Globes
The most horrific part of the Polish art-horror “Demon” has nothing to do with anything onscreen. It’s this: Director Marcin Wrona committed suicide less than a week after it bowed at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. There’s no use scanning his third film for clues, no hope of finding cheap and reductive explanations. The best you can glean is that he was a very serious man, deeply anguished by his nation’s past, and how those in the present tried to pave over it. It’s an idea that so outraged him he built a film around it — one that’s grim, nerve-jangling and even often very funny film. In fact, it even boasts an amusing hook: What if a horror film happened at a wedding?
It’s a Polish wedding, too, one that lasts for days and involves an ocean of booze. The groom is Piotr (Italy Tiran), an outsider who arrives in a small village to wed Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), whom he’s never met. He’s nervous and uneasy even before he starts seeing things no one else can: a skeleton lying in a mysteriously dug-up ditch; a woman in white taunting him. Whatever it is, it doesn’t really start to take hold until the wedding party’s in full swing. And when it does, it does so literally: It starts as what looks like epileptic fits. Then Piotr’s dance moves start to look like he — or something — is turning his body into a pretzel.
To older and less soused revelers, it’s clear what’s happening: He’s been possessed by a dybbuk, that old Jewish myth involving a malicious spirit that takes hold of people, hoping to right wrongs or finish deeds left undone. To everyone else he’s a nuisance. The bride’s father tries to shut it down, feeding partygoers lies about food poisoning — but, er, you know, not the food they’re eating — and ordering the band to amp up the music to drown out Piotr’s screams. By the time Piotr is speaking Yiddish and claiming to be “Hana,” one of many Jews murdered in the town circa World War II, their silencing tactics ramp up.
As you can see, “Demon” isn’t afraid to be blunt. But bluntness isn’t always a crime, and this is a case where a film tries to make a lack of subtlety work for it, not against it. Part of that is by delivering an art house version of the genre goods. This is a mood piece by way of a party movie, with the camera swooping through crowds or forcing the viewer to notice different bits of business going on simultaneously in frames silly with controlled chaos. It’s the restaurant stretch of Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” crossed with a horror movie crossed with a message movie, the three genres drunkenly battling for supremacy.
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Wrona knew, too, that his earnest pleas for a better world should never turn into lectures. Even the mightiest sledgehammer blows to the head are eased by a thick coat of dark, absurdist comedy. At one point the bride’s father tells his guests to literally forget the wedding and its attendant debacle, to pretend that they were never there — this as they sit in chairs listening to him speak. You can’t miss the message — but you can’t help but chuckle, too. It’s a serious film that does the heavy lifting for you. But that can be freeing; it allows you to soak up the atmosphere, enjoy its singular mix of dread and deadpan, where jokes are played against a score, co-written by legendary composer Krzysztof Penderecki, that works like a straight razor being sharpened over leather. It aims for the mind but fares even better with the nerves, infecting viewers with the power of a dybbuk itself.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge