As mystifying as it is transfixing, Jagoda Szlec’s feature-length debut Tower. A Bright Day. is an astute blend of dread and mundanity.
The Audacity of Dreadby Gus Edgar
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s no secret that Poland is going through something of a surrealist movement. Joining the fray substantiated by The Lure and Spoor is Jagoda Szlec’s feature-length debut, awkwardly titled Tower. A Bright Day.
How that title references the film is something of a mystery, which is apt for a debut that keeps its cards close to its chest. It begins with an overhead shot of an urban landscape, drifting around before fixing its gaze on a moving car. Accompanied by a droning score, it forewarns of a much louder, more showy film than the one we get. Instead, the horror is sedate, a series of unsettling moments interspersed between faux-Dogme 95 segments that take up the bulk of the film. These moments taunt an upcoming cacophony of violence and shock that doesn’t arrive until the very end (and even then, it’s more muted than you’d expect).
The story is a basic one on the surface, but is dripping with enough atmosphere and audacity to make sure there’s enough meat on the bone. Kaja (Malgorzata Szczerbowska) arrives at the home of her sister’s family, which includes their sickly mother and their daughter, Nina. Kaja, as we are told early on, is in fact the biological mother of Nina, though is urged to keep quiet about it by her sister, Mula (Anna Krotoska). Having disappeared for six years, she arrives tattered and batty, an eyeball-bulging husk of a woman who’s pleaded with ‘to be normal’ for the duration of her visit.
The bait-and-switch is that Mula is the sister more likely to lose her rag, as jealousy and paranoia slowly but surely creeps in concerning the blossoming maternal relationship of Kaja and Nina. Unsettled and gradually losing it, she begins to have worrisome dreams – or, just maybe, visions.
These visions are initially what free Tower. A Bright Day. from the shackles of a sluggish family drama. Each is enigmatic – a hand entering a mouth, or a girl jumping on a trampoline – but form a nesting doll of hints that may just unlock the film’s nigh-impenetrable message. Sure, we still have typical scenes, such as an elongated discussion/reminiscing between characters sat on the terrace, which serve to halt the narrative and atmosphere somewhat, but the tone of the film is so richly defined that the dread is inseparable from the mundanity.
Kaja cuts quite the bastardised messiah figure, a Second Coming that reverberates around her family household. Szelc renders her film’s themes of religious corruption and control blatant, and so the parallels between Kaja and Nina’s first communion are fully realised rather than distant. Burning shrubs are replaced with smoking trees, the ill mother suddenly feels well again once Kaja comes to greet her, and, in the one scene that comes as close as the film gets to a jump scare, Kaja observes the camera and lays bare her omnipresence.
There’s something deeply and latently unsettling to her, exacerbated by the gradually growing diegetic noise that drowns out thought and deafens ears. The dread-inducing visions eventually (while the pacing is admirably measured, it’s also slightly repetitive) seep into the real world, where voices inhabit walls and women wander the countryside. Of course, not everything in Tower. A Bright Day. is immediately clear – or, quite likely, ever going to be. A plot strand involving an immigrant needs more attention, and the dog’s unexplained disappearance and reappearance contributes to atmosphere and little else. But this is a fine debut from Szelc, drawing you in with a neat concoction of dread and everyday conversation before saturating the narrative with a surreal quality that threatens to veer headlong into horror. And the final images are transfixing, a dazzling mixture of Buñuel, Vinterberg, and something wholly unique.
Tower. A Bright Day is now showing in the 68th Berlin Film Festival.