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Stories of women in crisis

25 November 2016

Lives short of colour: a dinner party in the film United States of Love

Lives short of colour: a dinner party in the film United States of Love

POLAND, 1990. Solidarity’s efforts have overthrown Soviet domination, but individuals in United States of Love (Cert. 18) start realising freedom means more than release from political oppression. A greater struggle lies within the very souls of a people contaminated by decades of state paranoia. Focusing on four different-aged women, the narrative is united by their search for love.

Many clergy experience the likes of Agata (Julia Kijowska), someone transferring a need for love on to them. She has a caring (probably dull) husband. For all we know, she is relying on her priest’s holding moral boundaries that will keep things safe. Or perhaps her own wretchedness turns him into a sexual challenge, regardless of any ensuing harm. Such is the mismatch between the faith that Agata professes and what she seeks.

Time and again, the characters fail to find what they’re looking for, usually mistaking lust for love. Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) is a headmistress barely content to conceal the illicit relationship that she has with a student’s father. Faced with her obsessively controlling nature, he prefers marital constraints rather than settling down with her. Renata (Dorota Kolak) is a solitary older woman recently unemployed. Her pet birds fly freely around while their owner remains distinctly earthbound.

Desperation leads to her involving herself with a neighbour, Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz), a dance-exercise tutor. The younger woman, undeniably lonely, too — her husband has worked for several years in Germany — rebuts Renata’s friendship, yet vulnerable to being taken advantage of by a predatory male.

There are fine performances from all four leading ladies. Tomasz Wasilewski, however, has still some way to go before emulating the subtlety and insight of acknowledged women’s directors such as Ophuls, Sirk, Cukor, or Fassbinder. The well-nigh monochrome palette reflects colourless characters with lives programmed for disappointment. In effect, each is asking if that’s all there is.

Indeed, the whole film could be summed up by another question: what is this thing called love? We see in the film how frequently people are abused in its name, mimetic of the state’s former habits of covert surveillance, fear, and disloyalty. The Church contents itself with platitudinous statements on love which offer little help to these women.

An RE teacher tells her pupils that love will be the most important thing in their lives. Maybe so; but, if the examples we are treated to are anything to go by, the film’s main characters equate it with experiencing attraction to inappropriate people. The priest on whom Agata is fixated deals with it via a sermon that indicates that this is a no-go area. She will need to find fulfilment elsewhere, through her faith, it is to be hoped. Viewers may not be convinced that this will work.

The citizens of this film are clearer about what they have been liberated from, less so a where they direct this new-found freedom and need for affection. The movie comes closest to defining love when the disregarded Renata, in a scene reminiscent of Christ’s foot-washing, performs an act of agapeic proportions. This sharply contrasts to the film’s preoccupation with erotic desires that the flesh is heir to.

 

“IT MAY seem incomprehensible to the outside world”. This reference in The Innocents (Cert. 15) is to how nuns, raped by Russian soldiers in post-war Poland, deal with being pregnant. Anne Fontaine (Coco before Chanel) based her film on a true story. Benedictine sisters (great singing, by the way) live out their calling amid a regime hostile to religious belief while remaining deeply reactionary. The Abbess (powerfully realised by Agata Kulesza, last seen in Ida), therefore, insists on keeping the pregnancies secret. If the nuns’ plight were known outside the convent, they would be objects of utter scorn. Yet, out of compassion and desperation, compromises are made by the Abbess, leading to the recruitment of Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a French Red Cross doctor, to tend the expectant mothers.

The film focuses on a young nun, Maria (Agata Buzek), and Mathilde as they find the courage to disobey their respective superiors in bringing succour to those who are soon to give birth and who strive to make spiritual sense of everything. One asks: “What does He want me to do with it?” Another tells Mathilde, a non-believer, “If it happened, that means He wanted it.”

We may find ourselves struggling, with Mathilde, to believe that the violation of these sisters sits easily within the Divine Economy. Such notions of Providence are something of a leitmotif throughout the film. Under the doctor’s influence, new theological perspectives begin to emerge. Sins of omission — the withholding of information — are committed by both Maria and Mathilde in the cause of a greater good. Downright lies are told, the Abbess dispatching aggressive Russian soldiers by asserting that there is a typhoid epidemic.

Later, at great cost to her immortal soul, the Abbess takes drastic action, perceiving it as part of God’s continuing redemptive activity. Chiefly, though, the film is about how a view of God’s everlasting mercy is stimulated by Mathilde’s secular presence.

Fontaine directs the piece in terms of the relationship between Maria and Mathilde. They could so easily have been represented as Belief versus Reason. Instead, the sceptical doctor comes to see that for Maria “Faith is 24 hours of doubt and one minute of hope”; and that, but for the horrors of war, the nun is happy, whereas her atheist companion cannot claim to be so, putting her unhappiness down to the way the outside world operates.

Paradoxically, Mathilde is sensitive enough to know that this isn’t a sufficient explanation. The cloister, as she has seen for herself, is no protection against life’s harsher realities. In the end, we have to ask ourselves who the innocents in this film are. I suggest that it is pretty much everyone, from the orphaned children surrounding the convent to those inside it, from the medics doing their best to even the Russian soldiers who don’t seem to know any better way of behaving.

It is enough to make God weep tears of joy as well as sorrow. I certainly did.

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