By Yun-hua Chen.
This film is also about motherhood, mutual love, becoming a mother again when you are a very mature woman, loneliness, and all those difficult emotions which are so powerful in this film and our life. I did not want the confirmation of the taboo to be the only information, but rather a very important moment for the main character….”
Tomasz Wasilewski, having won the Silver Berlin Bear with his United States of Love (2016), is a regular to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival where he premiered his latest film Fools in the section of Proxima Competition. The main protagonist Marlena, a 62-year-old woman, works in a maternity hospital and lives in a small and remote seaside town with her partner Tomasz who is 20 years younger. Their established life pattern is thrown upside down after Marlena decides to take care her ailing son at their shared home.
A very difficult film to talk about and an innately unsettling subject matter that is only confirmed at the very end of the film, Fools is unflinchingly outspoken, and at the same time sympathetic and tender to its protagonists. Marlena and Tomasz, who might be considered as “fools” by society, are tightly bound together through love that is reciprocal, but meanwhile, they have crossed the boundaries imposed by society that are uncrossable. Their suffering is thus due to the irreconcilable conflicts between individual decisions and collective norms, and between love out of personal choice and taboos that forbid certain kinds of love.
The director of photographer Oleg Mutu, renowned for his work in In Bloom (2013) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), is an expert in navigating complex human emotions and relations in domestic space. Here, with a stylish cold tone of blue and grey, Marlena and Tomasz’s shared apartment in which the emotionally intense drama unfolds itself is approached with well-measured precision and serene calmness. The eerie lack of soundtrack contrasts with loud environmental sounds of seagulls and unescapable human screams of agony, whereas the freely flying seagulls that intrude into the apartment are a poignant reminder of the immobility, unconsciousness, and approaching death of Marlena’s son. Although the coastal line in front of their windows seems infinite, they are trapped in a mental prison cell built by themselves.
Fools has a framed structure. It is only until the very end of the film that the beginning of the film started to make sense. Was that something you had in mind at the stage of scriptwriting already? How did you come up with this story?
It’s such big subject matter and such a taboo, so I realized that I needed time for the audience to get to know the characters and to be part of their life. So, I decided that I should postpone the moment of revelation till the end. I feel that the taboo is not the most important topic. This film is also about motherhood, mutual love, becoming a mother again when you are a very mature woman, loneliness, and all those difficult emotions which are so powerful in this film and our life. I did not want the confirmation of the taboo to be the only information, but rather a very important moment for the main character Marlena; it is the moment when she says who she is. When she has the courage to say who she is, it is very powerful for me.
For me, the emotional structure is the most important one. We did one year of rehearsals before starting to shoot this film. I had already written the script, but during those rehearsals my actors and I, and later also with the DOP Oleg Mutu, we built the emotional line together and started to see how to tell the story. I wanted them to be… I wanted to say “normal”, but I don’t want to say “normal” because for me they are normal. It’s so hard to talk about this kind of relationship. Even now, six years after I first started working on this film, I still wish to have more tools to talk about it. This subject of motherhood is so important for me. I think that’s the crucial line of the film, this sacrifice that she has had to make to be with Tomasz. They are doomed from the beginning. No matter what decision she makes, they will be fools in the end because they believe that love will conquer all.
Is that why the title is “Fools”?
I think they are “fools” because they believe in it. They are not stupid. Maybe they are naïve. At the end, the life that our society creates is too brutal. This film is not about abuse or violence. I am talking about two adults who decide to be together, but the entire society is there to stop them. I realized that I am part of the society and at the end I am the one who is going to hurt them. This is very heartbreaking for me.
There is a very strong element of physical love. How do you see the role of physical love in this complex dynamic?
As I did in all my films, I look at physical love in the same way as I look at emotional scenes. For me, it is also a part of their life, their language, and their love. That’s very important for me. When I look at this film, there is less physical love, actually; I used to have many more scenes of physical love. Lovemaking is such a natural way to express love in my life that I use it in my films as well. There is a scene when Marlena and Tomasz start making love, and then she stops. That is not physical for me, but rather emotional. She starts to realize the boundaries defined by society that she has not seen before.
How was the collaboration with the director of photography, Oleg Mutu? How did you negotiate the cinematic space together?
I wanted to create the end of the world for Marlena and Tomasz. We built every set in the film ourselves and did not take any pre-existing space. I needed to create a new world for them. They had to escape to the end of the world even though it is impossible to escape from oneself. Oleg and I created a narrower format than panorama cinemascope. I wanted to give them this amazingly huge space, but at the same time it is a trap. Even though you could see beach, dunes, and wind, at the same time there is no air at all. Clouds don’t move. Even if you have all the space, you are in a prison. At the moment that Marlena falls in love with Tomasz, she keeps herself in a prison no matter where she is. That’s why I need the calming nature to be in their world; nature is her emotions and keeps attacking her from the beginning.
Nature also presents itself strongly as background sounds of seagulls and waves. How did you make your sound design?
Sound for me is very important because there is no music in the film. From the beginning, I know that the diegetic sound would be the music and the emotions of Marlena. So, the set design and sound design are crucial for this film and for the characters. It’s a different layer to the story.
The sounds from window, in the basement, screaming seals, and birds that enter apartment, it’s her attacking herself.
The film starts from the maternity hospital where Marlena worked and ends with a funeral, and there is a scene of them carrying a bed upstairs and then another scene of them carrying the same bed downstairs. Did you feel that there is a strong cyclical element to this film?
For sure, this is like a cycle of life. This is something that she has to witness as a mother and that is very painful for her. I have never experienced the death of a child, but when I imagine it, I feel that it has to be overly painful. It is very hard to imagine this kind of pain. At the same time, the feeling of guilt that she is carrying throughout her life is there. Carrying the bed upstairs and then downstairs is kind of a metaphor of her life for me.
Marlena’s solo spinning in desperation is a very powerful scene. Was it spontaneous or rehearsed?
In that scene, she first spins around then then sits down to scream. In the script I only wrote that she would spin around. When we shot the scene, almost at the end of the shooting, we had a better understanding of her character and emotions by that time. The actress Dorota Kolak started spinning, and after the first take, I asked her how she felt. And then we realized that she was totally devastated. I then suggested, what do you think if you scream? She was like, yes, I felt that I had to scream. It is amazing that you asked me this question. It was a moment that captured how we felt on set.
The human relationships in your films are somehow very entwined and interconnected. What attracts you most about this kind of relationships?
For me, I don’t draw any lines even though they are in my life as well, but they are fluid. There is no black and white. It’s always grey. The older I am, the more I realize that it is all too easy to say that something is right and something is wrong, something is white and something is black. Bullshit. This is how we hurt ourselves and other people. This grey area is the most fascinating thing. I believe that it is really hard to say that someone is right or wrong. I believe that it is always in between and it is impossible to be strict.
Coming from a Catholic country, what do you think the reception of the film would be?
I am very curious. I don’t know how people are going to react, not only in Poland but also in other countries. I cannot imagine the reaction. I just hope that people will see human beings in their respective difficult situations.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.