Janusz Majewski’s film The Eccentrics (Excentrycy) bagged several awards at the Polish Academy Awards in 2016, including best supporting actor and actress (Wojciech Pszoniak and Anna Dymna), and best film score. Least surprising is the latter, given that it’s a musical comedy, which focuses on a Jazz Big Band in 1950s communist Poland.
Fabian Apanowicz (Maciej Stuhr) returns after a long stint in the US and Britain, joining his sister Wanda (Sonia Bohosiewicz) in a small Polish town. Wanda, having lost her husband and children in the war and subsequent Stalinisation, is a dentist, suffering from a debilitating tumour that leaves her in constant pain. The two share a large old manor-house with the old Bayerova (Anna Dymna), who, disillusioned by communism, lives in her bed, drinking and smoking her life away. When the police come to check on the new arrival, officer Stypa (Wiktor Zborowski) discloses his love of jazz to Fabian – he himself used to be a famous musician before the war.
The two men start planning a performance at a military New Year’s ball and soon – such is the way of these things – they find enough men to form a big band, including the eccentric Zuppe (Wojciech Pszoniak), a man convinced that all great Polish poets were gay, endlessly reciting poems as ‘proof’ of his claims. The band’s also joined by two singers, among them the mysterious teacher Modesta Nowak (Natalia Rybicka), who first approaches Fabian to practice her English. When Fabian starts an affair with Modesta, things start to unravel in unexpected ways…
Though joyful music and dance make up the bulk of this film, they’re underlined by the legacy of war and the pressures of communism, which – predictably – looks none too kindly upon American Jazz sung in English. It’s this harrowing undercurrent that takes away the film’s light-heartedness, making it too melancholic for a comedy, yet too superficial for a drama. And though the characters have potential, the film’s carried more by its music than its actors, despite the impressive line-up. Fabian – the ‘foreign hero’ – is a serious man, whose coolness more often than not comes across as chauvinistic, as he plays the suave dandy, who’s overcome the trauma of war only through music and the emotional release it grants.
Zuppe’s musings about a gay Mickiewicz are funny to begin with, but begin to introduce a subtle homophobia mid-way, which is left unquestioned and, as such, is dubious in a 21st century film. The female characters, meanwhile, are stereotypes without depth: Wanda bears all the pain of women’s history in 20th Century Poland, stoically carrying on like an allegory of Mater Polonia. Modesta, her young and sexy counterpart, is like a mysterious Hollywood screen siren, her glossy red lips the most pronounced part of her characterisation: we learn hardly anything of her during the film. And, finally, Bayerova is the crazy old woman not to be taken seriously.
Yet without a doubt the biggest problem with The Eccentrics is its clinging to the surface. We never learn what the characters think, leaving us with a veneer of jazz and fancy costumes that never delves into the contentious depths and issues of Cold War Poland. All the themes are there in the background, but never quite come to the fore, leaving the audience hanging. Fabian’s the character that might have been most illuminating here: he has, after all, returned from a long sojourn in the West, and girls and police alike are interested in the ‘foreigner’, who simply states he wants to return to his roots. There are moments too when we think there might be more to it – and then there isn’t.
To give some credit, there have been few Polish musicals on film – presumably because such a light-hearted genre sits uneasily with the ‘sincere’ tradition of Polish film making. The Eccentrics is a clear attempt to counter this, mixing both a historical narrative, however fictionalised, with some old-fashioned Hollywood glamour à la Lala Land. Yet, these two genres prove difficult to combine, especially with a history as trauma-strewn as Poland’s. As such, Majewski’s film is neither this nor that, promising a host of engaging stories that it never quite delivers. A shame really: as there are no two ways about the pizazz of the film’s music.
The Eccentrics was screened as part of KINOTEKA, the 15th Polish Film Festival in London, running from 17 March till 5 April 2017.