Marcin Wrona was a rising star of Polish cinema before his untimely death in 2015 and Demon, his final and most ambitious work, would have been his breakthrough had he lived. It’s a curious, unsettling film, made more so by parallels between the life of its director and protagonist, which will no doubt earn it cult status. But it deserves to be seen and appreciated on its own terms, especially today, when it’s never been more relevant.
Young Piotr (Itay Tiran) travels from England to wed his Polish wife (Agnieszka Żulewska) and renovate her family’s property, which, in the inescapable logic of movies, is a creepy country house. While doing some digging in the front yard he comes across human remains and immediately senses the gravity of his error – an anxiety that none of his soon-to-be in-laws seem eager to diffuse. Soon a spooky young bride appears uninvited at his wedding, demanding attention and triggering a suspicious number of nosebleeds. By the time we find out that this ghost is Jewish, the party has gone haywire and Piotr is writhing and convulsing like a man possessed.
Demon has been billed, not inaccurately, as a horror film, though it’s just as much a satire and a farce. Its vision of wedding guests visited by the supernatural has a long literary pedigree in Poland. The Wedding, Stanislaw Wyspiański’s symbolist play from 1901 and a classic of the Polish theatre, is a direct ancestor, and like Demon, a sendup of the country’s ruling class. Wrona keeps this exotic mixture balanced expertly for nearly half its running time, at which point the film becomes increasingly mannered, unwilling or unable to shed its theatrical tics. In fact The Wedding is not the only theatre in its DNA; the script by Wrona and Paweł Maślona is an adaptation of Piotr Rakowicki’s play Przylgnięcie (The Clinging), though it takes equal inspiration from S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk. The latter is a variation on a Jewish myth: a spirit that comes to reclaim from the living what it had been promised and denied.
It’s not difficult to surmise what that might be, given the tragic history of the Jews in Poland but Wrona isn’t after easy reckoning. His dybbuk, Hana (Maria Debska), is more distraught than angry or vengeful. Piotr is himself an enigmatic character, with a hard to place accent (Tiran is Israeli) and murky family background; as the other characters are fond of reminding us, nobody knows him all that well. There’s more than a hint he may be closer to his ghost bride than his real one, but on this point and others Demon prefers to remain ambiguous – or muddled, depending on your point of view – right up to the end.
Wrona was a veteran of television production before embarking on features, and it is likely to that medium and its punishing workload that he owes his mastery of tone. He has a full bag of genre tricks and is happy to throw it at Demon, never quite disguising its ambition as a state-of-the-nation film. It’s a measure of his talent and its tragic loss that we can read it as an allegory of today’s political situation; he died a month before the 2015 election, well before the threat of reactionary legislation sent Poles all over the country into the streets again.
Marcin Wrona’s Demon can be seen at the Hackney Picturehouse on 24 November (18.45) as part of the Play Poland Film Festival 2016.