"33 Scenes from Life": Creating Real Life, and Making It Look Easy By Emma Gray Munthe

in 60th Locarno International Film Festival

by Emma Gray Munthe

In what is clearly a very personal film for the Polish director Malgoska Szumowska, 33 Scenes from Life (33 szeny z zycia), everything begins with the sort of family gathering that’s as happy as family gatherings only ever get in films where something terrible is about to happen. We soon find out there might be something wrong with the family’s matriarch; cancer is suspected, and soon confirmed. What follows is a string of scenes from life.

As everyone who’s endured countless films about grieving families in turmoil knows, stories like this can very, very easily turn into the worst kind of melodrama, with over-the-top acting and sleazy sentimentality. Creating scenes from life is just not an easy thing for a director to do. But Szumowska does what Bo Widerberg did so well in his time, and what many Danes have done with great success in the last decade; she manages to capture life as it is.

Telling the story of the celebrated photographer Julia and her family, she is perfectly attuned to the absurdities and the little things happening in the midst of a major crisis — and she makes it look simple. With a light hand, she shows how life goes on no matter what happens, and especially how even in the darkest moments, we are able to find something to laugh about. The banality in deciding what the dead body of a loved one should be wearing in the coffin; the relief in getting absolutely hammered after a funeral; the way sorrow perhaps makes people feel differently about those close to them — or, perhaps, leads them to have sex with someone who wasn’t really that attractive to them before the shit hit the fan.

The film is laugh-out-loud funny one moment, heartbreaking and completely devastating the next. Some viewers will undoubtedly have a hard time switching between the two emotional extremes, and decide that the film is neither tragedy nor comedy. Some might even find it highly inappropriate to laugh at some of the situations shown — like the scene where Julia’s family laughs and calls the dying mother “Pinocchio” because her nose is standing out in her otherwise hollow face. Others will take the film straight into their hearts. I am clearly one of the latter.

To be sure, it isn’t a perfect film. There are problems. Perhaps the character of Julia’s assistant isn’t the sharpest-written character in the history of cinema. He is almost a caricature of the strong, silent type who holds all the wisdom of the world in his sad, sad eyes. And perhaps the balance in the mood of the film is a little off at times, veering a little to the melodramatic here and there. So what? The acting is, overall, fine — so fine, in fact, that I didn’t even notice that Julia Jentsch (who plays Julia) had been dubbed. I was told after the screening by somebody who complained about it. This was apparently the result of budgetary issues, but I was too drawn in to see it.

As a portrait of a strong woman with her own will and way in the world, Julia definitely stands out in the Locarno competition lineup of 2008. In a disproportionate number of the films in the competition selection, female characters are depicted in a very moralistic and surprisingly old-fashioned way. In the ten days of the festival, a sad parade of whores, madonnas and people from Venus have wandered down the red carpet, with female characters judged and punished for their sexuality, and/or raped and involuntarily impregnated (with abortion not even a conceivable option). Julia, on the other hand, is allowed to be a complex person. She is not judged for her actions; her world is not painted solely in black and white. She’s not Good or Bad, neither Madonna nor Whore. She simply is.