Jigsaws Lacking, Mirrors Cracked: Europe as a Broken Riddle

in 16th Lecce Festival of European Cinema

by Michael Pattison

It’s a common trait by now—the deadpan juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated characters in disparate spaces, framed with an emphasis upon the quotidian details of their lives and, through the sheer persistence of their apparent disconnection (harsh cuts, no sonic bridges between scenes), the tacit promise that a common ground will eventually and gradually reveal itself. Influenced to varying degrees by the paradigm-defining conquest of a chilly brand of intelligence (as propagated chiefly by Michael Haneke), these films take Europe in its Union age and seek to expose the broken reality behind the façade.

As people who live in the world, we know that a broken Europe has to do with the rise of neo-liberalism, the aggressive political consolidation of a new superclass, and a prolonged financial crisis. As artists, however, filmmakers are wont to look at other ways to explain the profound contradictions conditioning a great deal of social life today. Uncertainty and insecurity become the core ingredients of living, and artistic renditions, rather than confronting such problems, compound them accordingly: abstraction, ambiguity, the edgy cut-to-black. People are ciphers, meaning is reducible to gesture, action and inertia become symbols without referents.

Films are innately bound to both verisimilitude and allegory, lending associative meaning to all manners of signifier—and, since the medium is the message, these are also in the same moment the signified. Put another way, cinema has boasted analogies—visual and narrative—since its very conception, comprising signs before it became a systemised language. But I’ve never seen it as desperate as it currently is (or as certain portions of it currently are) to abandon the world that bore it in favour of facile provocation, mannered simulacra and false objectivity.

Confusion, hurt, misery: Europe is a wounded, even defeated, beast. (Beached whales are to be found everywhere, from that hollowed-out skeleton in Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan last year to that seen in stills from the new Miguel Gomes film, just announced to be at Cannes. These are descendants of the pitiable creature that’s trucked into town in Werckmeister Harmonies, Béla Tarr’s beautiful monument to the carcass of mystification. Meanwhile, migrants drown in their thousands while the EU turns its back; how many of their corpses will be washed ashore?)

The Russian Revolution, enacted by an industrial workers’ party, finds its logical conclusion in the top-down bureaucracies of Stalinism. The two become equated, acquainted, tarred with the same brush: communism dies, history ends, the free market runs off as victor. The family unit, the lip-serviced stronghold (and primary victim) of late capitalism, is shattered, torn apart: marriage, kids, domestic responsibility—all find their truest reflection in a shattered mirror and their most fitting metonym in that oldest of household haunts: the incomplete jigsaw.

In Hardkor Disko, the debut feature by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Skonieczny, a nouveau riche couple and their hedonistic daughter welcome an estranged young man named Marcin into their overwhelmingly immaculate but palpably dysfunctional domestic space—not knowing the extent to which he seeks vengeance for a childhood neglect. Early in the film, Marcin reveals his violent capacity by throwing another man’s head into a bathroom mirror. Thereafter, Skonieczny builds an increment of dread, as our protagonist—purposeful but not, of course, without his own moments of frailty—hones in on a middle-class couple’s presumptions of untouchability. It’s Funny Games with a twist: the invasion is a dupe. The film’s first murder is shot in a beautifully slick long-take, the strangulation unfolding in increasing distance from us as the camera tracks back and Skonieczny introduces an expressionistic sound design. It’s Frenzy in a forest, and nature’s wondrous soundscape is brought to an abrupt halt when Marcin springs into action, opening and shutting the car door.

What, in Marcin’s perverse mind, might we find with regard to our own predicament? Of the film’s title, the director remarks: “‘Hardkor’, written in a polonized fashion, is a term that describes our times. It entered our everyday language to signify something surprising, ruthless, and yet attractive and alluring through its aura of danger. At the same time, ‘disko’ is a word from a bygone era, from the times of our parents, filled with a very special kind of nostalgia”. The director continues. “I would like the film to be experienced on a deeply personal level (…) The form and content of Hardkor Disko is only a pretext for imagining your own story and asking your own question, while at the same time avoiding simple answers”.

I don’t wish to hold one artist to account for what I perceive to be a deeper cultural malaise here, but what are we to make of such comments? There’s no denying that Skonieczny has a plan, a concept, and to some degree one must say that he’s executed it with flair and precision. We might also say that he is on one level a talented director who knows how to frame a shot and how to instil a narrative with a sense of oncoming dread. But what is direction beyond framing and instilling? Hardkor Disko strikes me as a clever film, replete with what we’ve come to expect from films of its kind: causal ambiguities, moral ambivalence, an attempt to fuse content and form with straight- or barefaced irony, by trying to impose upon viewers the same stresses endured by the characters onscreen, and a palpable and overwhelming despair.

Though all of these traits are interrelated, the latter trend, in which nihilism provides a film with its chief romantic thrust, is especially displeasing. What else is there to be found, these filmmakers seem to be saying of the world, other than all-out despondency? Again, we must not pose the question specifically to individual artists. But in what ways do Hardkor Disko and other films like it relate to social reality? It goes without saying, upon reading its director’s statements, that a certain attempt to take the world seriously, to open dialogues with audiences and to provoke specific and diverse responses from them, is at least one objective at play here. But the relish with which Skonieczny and others appear to take in telling us that this is the world beneath the façade, stripped bare, devoid of hope, is—to be frank—painful to sit through.

In Carlos Vermut’s Magical Girl, one character gets to the very end of a jigsaw puzzle only to find the final piece is missing. The lost piece, we’ve seen, has earlier in the film been found by another character, who accordingly tossed it away. Though the two characters come to cross paths in a more direct (and, for one of them, fatal) manner, the gesture—deliberately included as it is—might be interpreted as a comment on a society that’s only ostensibly the complete package. When it gets down to it, something’s amiss. Under the current financial crisis, banalities inform more exceptional behaviour. When a single father’s young daughter is diagnosed with leukaemia in present-day Spain, his endeavours to fulfil one of her life wishes leads him to successively (and successfully) blackmail a stranger he has met by chance, so that he can afford to indulge his child’s fancy—an enterprise that, in the end, is rendered brutally and utterly redundant.

With a marginally larger ensemble of characters (and 40 more minutes of narrative time) to work with than Hardkor Disko, Vermut’s film more visibly exemplifies the abovementioned clichés currently prevailing on the festival circuit: most notably, the quiet, ironic, deadpan juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated characters in disparate spaces—with the ordinary qualities of their lives emphasised so as to make the eventual drama all the more absurd. Lives brush up against one another, or else collide, as characters search for meaning and purpose in a harsh and sadistic world. Why bother?

Speaking about his second feature (following Diamond Flash, which he made in 2011 for €20,000), Vermut has said that it “uses a chain of blackmails, a black cinema typical element, to speak about love, desire, obsession and the relationship between human beings and their darker side. The eternal conflict of human souls struggling against their enemies”. All of this is not to place too much stock in author commentaries—especially given the pressures upon filmmakers today to be self-marketers, to think and speak in terms that widen their chance of being sold internationally in the complex and murky web of distribution.

At the same time, however—despite how well assembled Magical Girl is, despite the intriguing way with which it achieves its atmosphere, despite the accomplished acting, its wonderful cinematography and its purposeful final act—Vermut’s remark, that his film is about “the eternal conflict of human souls struggling against their enemies”, is perhaps revealing of a general confusion and disillusionment pervading cultural life in general in Europe and cinema in particular. On a continent whose history is one of conflicting imperialisms, of internal suppressions, of outward conquests and of terrible violence, just who are the enemies anyway?

Michael Pattison