Savina Petkova on Jagoda Szelc’s ‘Monument’ (2018)
The follow-up expectations for a director with a successful debut are often sky-high. Polish director Jagoda Szelc astonished festival juries with her first feature, Tower. A Bright Day. (2017). Her second feature, as its name implies, is a true Monument, which she directed as a graduation project of twenty young actors of the Lodz Film School. Within this ramification, her latest project about an internship gone weird went from blank pages to post-production in six months. Undoubtedly, the young female director is a real powerhouse, adroit and devoted, and the multi-layered, genre-bending enigma that is Monument testifies to a thriving future.
The film opens with an ominous tone as a bus takes young boys and girls to their end-of-term student practice taking place in an anonymous, typified hotel. Natural light fades away as the passengers fall asleep and wake up, as if transported, in front of their new workplace. Its facade features two-stories of symmetrical square windows, a grid in the stone building that recalls a prison more than a leisure spot. The hotel’s exterior conceals its labyrinthine underground levels, reminiscent of catacombs and sewers. Paralleling the descent into hidden architectural layers, the characters begin to degrade and their identities atomise. Monument depicts a descent into paranoia, anxiety, and self-exploration until they realign in an uncanny way: inventing new selves. The leitmotif of the film is that the old self has to die in order for the new self to be born, in accordance to its significance as a graduation of the crew.
Under the despotic hotel Manager (Dorota Lukasiewicz), all the girls are unifyingly named Anna and all the boys Pawel. They are assigned demanding chores, while the boss’ tyranny manifests in the form of pins stuck in the students’ necks through the collar to keep their posture straight while waiting tables. Tyrannically controlled at first, the students are subsequently left to their own devices and the camera merely records the intimacy of their controlled spaces. As a visual representation of bio-politics, the film showcases bodies governed by institutional or social unwritten rules, where identity is of no importance. At the same time, the devotion with which all the characters populate the rooms and corridors reveals a deeply personal note of a confessional kind, heightened by the lurking sense of suspense. Przemyslaw Brynkiewicz’s camerawork pays debt to Hitchcockian slow zooms and dollies, often focusing on bodily fluids such as sweat, blood, and dripping water from wet bodies. The drop of bodily fluid becomes a symbol for the atomised existence of every character, as well as a meta-commentary on bursting adolescent sexuality and changing bodies.
Its narrative gradually thinning out, Monument becomes an epitome of a character study. To be correct, a study of twenty characters, and it adorns them with freedom as the solid narrative structure of the film liquifies, the disciplined bodies become more loosened and fluid, identities interchange, and metamorphoses reign. A laundry room shelters sexual outbursts, while a trio of girls explores sex through hand-made gestures in the air and synchronised breathing. The most spectacular crack in the film’s sanity is framed in between the dirty walls of an ancient SPA lounge when one of the Annas attends to a heavy-breathing overweight old woman, marked alive only by her gargantuan feet and thighs. Anna’s small talk sways from fond memories of her grandfather to an outraged lament against the mute woman’s silence. Her subsequent aggressive outpour speaks of the traumatic impossibility of bridging the gap between generations that carry war and communist trauma, and the ones that don’t. In such visceral ways, Monument’s dialogue covers socio-political realities and addresses national and generational traumas, whilst making use of colloquial language and mundane topics of conversation to alleviate its contextual weight.
In its end, the film begs for an inevitable plot twist, one which reinvents the border between consciousness and the unconscious, retrospectively placing a veil of similitude between its beginning and its end. By doing this, it transforms already established symbols into new ones: ropes and wires suspend machinery rather than bodies, the darkness of the night becomes darkness of the soul. Szelc is fierce in her feeling-telling but also an impeccable technician when it comes to fine-tuning the film’s formal components that unravel into an organic machine, a hybrid with an unwinding mind of its own and associative imagery that stays with you, their sticky substance merging with your own remnants of a collective unconscious. Monument is a film like no other – a self-sufficient mechanism with cathartic powers, that grabs you, shakes you to the core until you undergo the same visceral change as its own characters. Again and again.
Screened as part of Kinoteka Polish Film Festival