Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"By taking away the elements of threat conventionally present in such scenarios, Szczesniak presents a much more interesting portrait of an individual under pressure."

When life is examined through a lens, it can look very different. Anna (Julia Kijowska) is a geneticist, working with a modified version of CRISPR to improve the editing of gene sequences with a view to curing cancers and other diseases. She's as fluent as anyone in the small details that make up a human being, but, despite her partner's pleas, she's not interested in making any new ones in the near future. Passionate sex in the lab or their adjoining residence does not involve a desire to reproduce. She's happy with her life as it is - until, one day, she's snatched away from it, confined in a room in the same complex, become part of somebody else's experiment.

With a fisheye lens in one wall providing a view of her own apartment, Anna watches her partner, friends and family members as they recognise, question and finally begin to accept her disappearance. Like a witness at her own funeral, she longs for her partner to be okay but is tortured when he thinks about moving on. The proximity of all these people is maddening, but no amount of yelling or banging on the wall gets their attention. The room in which she is imprisoned has been well prepared. She has a bed, a toilet, a shower, a treadmill. Sometimes she has a visitor. Most of the time he's somewhere nearby, talking to her through a speaker. He cajoles and provokes. A typical insecure man, one thinks at first, just looking for attention - but is he?

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It's always the not knowing that's worst. It keeps viewers glued to the screen. Anna can't work out why she's being held there. Her captor doesn't physically abuse her. Whatever he wants, he doesn't seem to be in a rush to get it - and meanwhile her life is being wasted, her skill is unavailable to a world in need. The situation seems as slippery as the walls of her cell - and yet there are little oddities that might offer clues. Why does he keep calling her by the wrong name? Why is he so interested in her memories? Once she was at ease solving complex problems. Facing this deceptively simple one requires a new set of resources.

Michal Szczesniak's second feature length work, this feels as if it were made for the stage, but the director uses the camera to inform us about Anna's psychological experiences, moving us around the cleverly designed set in line with her focus and sometimes zooming in close as she loses focus altogether. Flashbacks to childhood have the quality of aged, carelessly stored celluloid, prompting us to wonder how much is memory, how much fantasy or reconstruction. The scenes she witnesses through her lens have a heavily stylised, stagy quality which adds to the sense of dislocation. All of the people she watches there are, to some extent, performing for one another. She is the only one who has stopped, uncertain how to perform for her captor, losing interest in sustaining an image of herself that makes less and less sense purely for her own sake.

By taking away the elements of threat conventionally present in such scenarios, Szczesniak presents a much more interesting portrait of an individual under pressure. The surrounding story isn't as powerful as it might have been - Kijowska is good but Piotr Adamczyk, as her captor, lacks the same force of personality, which, though fair enough from a narrative perspective, makes the shifting power balance between them less compelling. Showing a character getting bored without boring the audience is always a challenge and Szczesniak pulls this off pretty well, but building the structure of the film around this limits its flexibility, leaving it with less and less room for manoeuvre.

The result of all this is a film that struggles in places due to its own ambition, but it still succeeds in making a mark. There's a lot of good work on display and Kijowska gives her character a pleasing depth of personality that goes some way beyond what's offered by the script. Szczesniak is perhaps just a little ahead of himself, as a consequence of which he has made something that indicates but doesn't fully exploit his ability. Looking through his lens, you will want to see more.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2020
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When a kidnapped woman learns secrets about her past, she realises that she must solve a mystery in order to escape.

Director: Michal Szczesniak

Writer: Szymon Bogacz

Starring: Julia Kijowska, Wojciech Zielinski, Piotr Adamczyk, Andrzej Mastalerz, Ewa Blaszczyk

Year: 2020

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Poland


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