Early in Little Crushes (Małe Stłuczki, 2014), the latest offering from filmmaking duo Aleksandra Gowin and Ireneusz Grzyb, an old man accidentally steps on and breaks a tiny trinket in his home. We see a wave of recognition and pain cross his face, and then the camera frames, in close-up, the reactions of the other characters present. Like these bystanders, the viewer has no idea why this particular item was so dear to the man, but it is a moment of extraordinary drama nonetheless. Like Gowin and Grzyb’s debut feature (Little Wires), the English title implies a focus on the apparently trivial, and knick-knacks and bric-a-brac – the accumulated debris of our lives – are indeed a central preoccupation of the film. This is a gentle, affecting depiction of the lives of three youngsters in contemporary Poland, reminiscent of the work of Miranda July and sharing her fascination with the emotional equivalent of such trinkets: the fleeting but oddly powerful feelings that flash through our daily existence.
We witness a rather subdued love triangle develop against the backdrop of the dilapidated courtyards and backstreets of Łódź and its pleasant surrounding countryside. (Both setting and plot will surprise anyone expecting the grim social realism or hard-hitting political messages more commonly associated with Polish cinema by western audiences). The sharpest point of the triangle is undoubtedly the impetuous, enigmatic and beautiful Asia (Helena Sujecka) and her provocative rule: no one is ever to touch her. She and her more placid flatmate Kasia (Agnieszka Pawelkiewicz) have the strange occupation of removing possessions from the homes of the deceased and selling them on – giving these unwanted knick-knacks, as one grateful elderly client puts it, a second life. We discover that Kasia has strong feelings for Asia; her other obsession is the fantasy of death by high-speed collision in a ‘nice American car’. Piotr (Szymon Czacki) is a similarly restless and troubled soul, bearing the burdens of a dead-end job and a recently estranged wife. Handsome and mild-mannered, his claim that he has ‘no passions’ is belied by his own growing interest in Asia. The acting is solid and restrained throughout – in the case of the hapless Piotr, perhaps too restrained – and the dialogue tends to be scripted more than improvised; despite surface appearances to the contrary, we are a long way from mumblecore here.
Kasia and Piotr’s struggle with Asia’s self-imposed inaccessibility is free of any of the usual rivalry we associate with a love-triangle – after the three collapse in bed after a night out on the town, they even exchange weary, knowing smiles over Asia’s sleeping body.A bizarre logic, or non-logic, courses through the film, as it did in Gowin and Grzyb’s previous feature. Asia’s life, and by extension that of Piotr and Kasia, is one of strange axioms – don’t drink coffee, or you’ll die ‘at some point’; cars that break down should be given a proper burial; a ring round Piotr’s finger only maybe means that he’s married. The otherworldly music of the film, provided by upcoming Polish group Enchanted Hunters, gives a natural accompaniment to these curious lines of reasoning.
The film’s secondary characters operate by the same quirky logic and supply much of the humour: a burly pizza delivery man explodes with rage after returning from a difficult elderly customer, but immediately calms down when given a hug; Piotr’s mother wraps her head in bandages to get her son’s attention but then appeals to him over the phone, rendering the whole ploy useless.
Funny as they may be, such moments sometimes seem like distractions from the plot, and there is a slackness to the film that could have been edited down while retaining its whimsical atmosphere. But then almost all of these characters have a common trait: in one sense or another, they are all victims. The ‘crushes’ of the title could also be translated as ‘collisions’: whether literal or metaphorical, this is a story about avoiding them while often secretly desiring them, and the consequences of even the mildest of bumps. Recent Polish history too has been one of constant victimhood: but, despite its small-scale irreverence, ‘Little Crushes’ seems a more universal film, examining the sweeping theme of human fragility with the most microscopic of lenses.