After the tremendous success of her film debut Tower. Bright Day last year, Jagoda Szelc took up the seemingly risky yet ultimately rewarding task of directing an Acting degree show for Lodz Film School students. The challenges of such task included an extremely low budget (Szelc often describes it as a “nano-budget” in interviews) and the cast composed of twenty fresh faces who all required balanced screen time. Additionally, numerous awards for her debut (at film festivals in Poland and overseas) paradoxically generated another level of anxiety to satisfy critics’ expectations. In spite of high pressure, Monument turns out to be an imaginative, both visually expressive and logistically well crafted picture that confirms Szelc’s position as one of the most important young filmmakers in the country.
The film tells a story of a group of hospitality apprentices who attend their work placement in a remotely situated resort. As soon as they arrive, they’re striped out of their identities by the strict manager of the hotel. They’re forced to wear nametags – all girls are called Ania, all boys Pawel – and their lives are reduced to hard and mundane responsibilities. The difficult circumstances prompt the young people to establish a “survival of the fittest” hierarchy within the group, as well as to create more personal and complex relationships between the individuals. As soon as the psychological thriller theme is established in the film, the brutally realistic portrayal of characters’ current tortures and past traumas is interrupted by a nightmarish paranormal element, which adds another layer of symbolism to Szelc’s work.
The formula of Polish diploma films means that they often become showcases of acting and directing abilities rather than complete polished productions that can be evaluated within their own rights. Szelc, despite of ticking all the boxes of genuinely interesting take on the genre, didn’t manage to fully escape these limitations. Monument still seems to present too many questions without leaving you clues to find the answers. As outdated it would be to expect an independent film with fixed interpretations and recipes for potential redemption, watching Monumentcan leave us feeling empty and overwhelmed, not only due to the lack of hope expressed throughout the storylines, but because of the vastness of sequences and themes that swing on the border of repetitiveness. Having said that, Monument is definitely more than just a platform for the Acting graduates to display the range of their talents, and Szelc smoothly manoeuvres the multiplicity of characters’ plots into solid piece of experimental cinema.
The blend of styles within a film is one of the most distinctive features of the director’s works. Similarly to Tower. Bright Day, Monument achieves the goal of providing a seemingly effortless journey through different cinematic genres. The fresh, talented cast of undergraduates, remarkable cinematography and excellent music constitute the expressively raw portrayal of human existence that Monument offers. The film is an emotional, at times disturbing experience that stays with the audience long after the screening. It’s hard to decide if Szelc’s production is scarier because of the unnerving visuals and nightmarish premise or the reality of young people’s traumas, the impossibility of escaping their disturbing pasts and the prison of their unconsciousness. Szelc’s second film is an excellent example of experimental raw cinema that begins to define the young director’s unique style of filmmaking. It’s a promising step in her career both as a highly skilled craftswoman and a visual artist.
Monument will be shown on Tuesday at theBFI at 5.45pm as a part of Kinoteka Festival, followed by a Q&A with Szelc: https://kinoteka.org.uk/programme/monument