Even in these liberal times, violence against women remains a stain on our society; a recent survey by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights found that one third of women living in the EU have been victims of sexual violence at some point in their adult lives. Most of these cases go unreported, while only a fraction result in criminal convictions. It is against this backdrop that Polish director Sławomir Fabicki sets his film Loving, a portrait of contemporary gender relations that is at once disturbing and painfully familiar.
At the film’s opening we are introduced to Maria, a heavily pregnant mayoral assistant responsible for public tenders. While changing clothes in the toilet at a party that the mayor has thrown seemingly in her honour, she is startled by the sound of breaking glass; this turns out to be a bird which has flown through a window, an omen of the violence that is to come. Later, through Maria’s disjointed conversation with her husband Tomek, it’s revealed that she’s uncomfortable at work due to the mayor’s flirtatious behaviour towards her, but Tomek dismisses Maria’s complaints of sexual harassment, even suggesting that “the fact that he likes you can help us.” When flirtation turns to rape, the stage is set for a dark analysis of the aftermath, as Maria is forced to cope with the trauma while also facing the demands of being a new mother. But the film’s greatest shock comes from Tomek’s reaction: angered by what he perceives as betrayal, he becomes increasingly sure of his own victimhood and stubborn in his infantile jealousy.
It is difficult for contemporary Polish film-makers to escape the shadow of Krzysztof Kieślowski, and there are certainly echoes of his work here in the way the plot emanates from one crucial event, as well as the cinematography: the natural lighting, lingering close-up shots and minimal use of music are also evocative of more recent examples of social realist cinema from central and eastern Europe, notably Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The scripting is occasionally ropey, especially in Tomek’s increasingly hysterical outbursts, but this is made up for by some stellar performances, with Julia Kijowska particularly impressive as Maria.
When writing about rape culture in western society, commentators have suggested that traditional patriarchal condemnation of sexual violence against women has been equated to that of theft and violation of property rights, portraying rape victims’ fathers and husbands as the principle injured party. Stealthily, unsettlingly, Fabicki’s drama forces us to confront the persistence of such notions. Loving is a well-crafted film and a timely reminder of the sexual violence and inequality that is still rife in Europe.
‘Loving’ is part of the KINOTEKA Polish Film Festival 2014. Please see Cultural Diary for details.