The Movie Waffler Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2019 Review - MONUMENT | The Movie Waffler

Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2019 Review - MONUMENT

monument film review
A group of students undertake an internship in a strange hotel.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Jagoda Szelc

Starring: Zuzanna Pawlak, Anna Biernacik, Paulina Lasota, Karolina Bruchnicka, Oskar Borkowski, Jakub Zajac

monument film poster

Where to start with this one?! In terms of narrative logic and genre, writer/director Jagoda Szelc’s Monument defies typical categorisation, basing its approach on strikingly abstract visuals and queasy sensations which are held together by the most oblique of plot structures. Maybe as good as any a place to begin is the imdb outline, which proffers Monument’s storyline as, ‘Waking up on a cold bus, a group of students start their internships in a remote hotel. Are they prepared for what lies ahead?’ To that synopsis we could addendum, ‘Are you prepared for what lies ahead,’ as Monument is a sickly gem, a sincerely strange and slyly confrontational movie which is probably my pick of the 2019 Kinoteka Festival.

monument film review

The weirdness begins early when, upon reaching the Overlook-ish hotel, one of the students has seemingly disappeared at some point during the overnight drive. His colleagues muse about where he could have gone, but almost immediately put it to one side and just sort of get on with the internship. Strange, but then again… I watched Monument when the (godawful) Swansea Vs Cardiff Varsity tournament was going on in Cardiff: this is basically when the sporting students of each town’s university (hundreds of them) meet up for competitions and then piss ups throughout the city. It’s a Boschian nightmare concocted of jocks of both genders drinking in the streets and chanting like thugs, a sort of mob mentality that is crushingly disappointing in its lack of imagination and forceful tribalism; the dickheads all wear either red or green, and treat Cardiff as if they have conquered it (alright, calm down grandad, etc). Watching Monument within this framework was interesting, as Szelc exploits the weird dynamics of student life, the anonymity among that forced intimacy, the sense of knowing-but-also-not-really-knowing your peer group, the brash confidence undercut by barely repressed anxiety: the need to conform. And so, just as the student body of Cardiff and Swansea colonised the city last week, spilling lager everywhere and bellowing some shit about where they were from (as if any of the shoppers or workers of Cardiff could give a crap about their silly little games of football or whatever), so too do the interns of Monument fall into line, Stanford prison style…

They are greeted by a severely beautiful landlady who gives them a proper bollocking in a manner more appropriate to a military drama. She expounds that they are to administer the hotel, which is ostensibly a pleasant enough venue that seems to cater for weddings (more thematic groupings: like bunches of students yoked together, the guests at weddings are also usually strangers to each other, too). We see the kids clean up after guests, launder, prepare food etc. And we also see them give an obese guest with mottled skin a bed bath in gruesome close up, build a bonfire in the forest, and step over a hogtied guest to have a piss in full view of the camera (this is the second Polish film in as many weeks where we see a woman urinating: is this a thing?), the actions growing increasingly bizarre and unsettling, all the more so for the nonchalance with which they are performed (the actors are all post-grads of the Lodz film academy, and the performances are universally excellent, as is the sumptuous look of the film, which belies its presumably low budget).

monument film review

For weirdness such as this to work there has to be a sense of an evasive, but persistent, order to the vivid strangeness, an unseen logic which is just out of the audience’s grasp, but which nonetheless convinces that there is hidden method to the incongruity. Monument has this in spades: it is there in the protracted, close-up cleaning up of broken glass and spilled wine, and phatic go-nowhere conversations which linger; such scenes are given status by the rhapsodic seriousness with which they are filmed. There is a gripping mundanity at work here; it’s like The Breakfast Club rewritten by J.G. Ballard, except while Hughes’ film proselytised individualism, in Monument personality is subsumed within the dark grind of work and shared circumstance.

Is Monument a comment on modern living? Gormlessly, unquestioningly waiting for something to happen, a grim compliance with a status quo so far beyond our powers of control that we’ve just given up and gone along with it? We watch captivated, wondering how the cumulative dynamic of weird will peak. The nearest contemporary to Monument’s off-kilter depiction of students is probably the recent Suspiria remake, which (despite the star wattage of Dakota Johnson) I found peculiarly unmoving. Monument has a similar approach to its female characters, who are often seen in uniform underwear of white cotton knickers and vest and filmed in voyeuristic low-angles. A particularly unpleasant scene ensues where three girls act out mad sexual actions to each other - fingering the air and thrusting robotically - and the effect is oddly sensual and creepy in a manner that Guadagnino’s pagan ballerinas never quite manage. The remake doesn’t have the ugly commitment which Monument possesses.

monument film review

I would imagine that Szelc’s weird opus will be divisive, and it is certainly not without pretence (this is a film where the credits refer to its cast as ‘artists’, God love it). And although I can’t quite forgive its (slight spoiler) cop out ending, Monument is a powerful visual poem, a fascinatingly misanthropic excavation of socialisation and group mentality. Those Varsity kids should give it a go.

2019 movie reviews