He’s a man about town. A lanky masseur in a tony neighborhood in Warsaw’s metro area. A Ukrainian immigrant. A foreigner. Not overly handsome, but magnetic. That’s the main character in this bedroom community slow-burning farce about a man whose sensitive hands rub Polish people the right way.
The concept and script were created by director Małgorzata Szumowska (Elles) and her co-director and cinematographer Michał Englert. Their best efforts became Poland’s Official Submission to the 93rdAcademy Awards® and that acknowledgement can be attributed to the film’s exquisite visuals—dreamy and surreal images mixed with cold stark suburban reflections. Englert, whose cultured taste in photography echoes Henri Cartier–Bresson’s, frames each setting impeccably. Surprisingly, he tends to put the focal point of the scenes (hallways, driveways, doors) in the middle of the picture surrounded perfectly by props, furniture, characters. He eschews the “Rule of Thirds” theory, that places subjects at the right or left of a picture. It’s a departure from a norm for photographers, but in this case a well-conceived artistic decision.
Englert and Szumowska aren’t alone in their ardent focus on the big picture and little accoutrements. All interiors and their belongings are flawlessly crafted and positioned (production designer Jagna Janicka). The pacing, for a story so simple and light, has a steady rhythm (editors Jaroslaw Kaminski and Agata Cierniak). Little noises (purring) to loud sounds (tea kettle whistles) pepper the audio track (sound engineers: Marcin Kasinski, Kacper Habisiak, Marcin Jachyra). The clothes on the rich and not so rich express their class and tastes perfectly (costume designer, Katarzyna Lewińska).
Zhenia (Alex Utgoff, Stranger Things), a twentysomething, is peculiar and emotionally detached. He walks door to door, white house to white house in a cookie-cutter residential enclave, to massage his faithful customers. There’s the young couple, Wika (Weronika Rosati) and her husband (Lukasz Simlat)—he’s got cancer. The hassled mom Maria (Maja Ostaszewska) and her disrespectful children. Ewa (Agata Kulesza) the older woman with the white-spikey hair who looks like Rita Moreno. The aloof military captain (AndrzejChyra) and the stout old eccentric woman (Katarzyna Figura) who is ever attached to her three bulldogs. The denizens are catty, odd and jealous of each other. But to Zhenia, who shuttles from residence to residence down pristine streets with his portable black massage table, they’re his needy clients. Wretches starved for his healing powers.
The notion of a wayfaring man kneading semi-nude bodies sounds like the premise of a Cinemax erotic series and feigns Pier Paolo Pasolini’s famed tryst-laden 1968 film Teorema. Yet, Szumowska and Englert seem more intent on exposing the rift between the monied and their poor interlopers than bestowing 1h 53min of copulating on their audience. The nudity is brief and antiseptic. There’s only one lovemaking scene, and it won’t scare the horses.
It’s an off-putting tepidness that some will view as banal and flaccid (e.g., a limp conversation about whether a shape on a wall is a dot or a circle). This creative choice stops potential drama, romance, passion and satire from hitting any heights. Art film lovers, photographers, artists and such will relish the eye candy. Average moviegoers looking for a story with substance or titillating sex scenes may be disappointed. In a theater they could yawn, at home streaming they might hit the remote.
Alex Utgoff is not a classically handsome actor, and so his magnetism feels a bit stretched, even with his character’s magical healing hands and burgeoning hypnosis treatments. His aversion to dogs and the relentless inner turmoil he endures regarding his mother and early childhood development are enigmatic at best. Inside jokes and putdowns about him being from Chernobyl won’t resonate with Westerners, though Eastern Europeans and Russians may get the point.
Certainly, a captivating work of art with a very potent premise. Its virtuosity overshadows the narrative and its quirky characters, but still… He’s a man about town…