Monday, April 21, 2014

De Poolse Bruid (The Polish Bride) (1998)

It isn't like we haven't seen many films of this kind before, but "The Polish Bride" still feels as refreshing as newly tilled soil. Maybe it is the hypnotic beauty of the Dutch countryside that is so poetically captured on camera, it is difficult not to be mesmerized and swept away by its sheer ethereal nature. Or maybe it is the very alluring depiction of a carefree life of isolation in the scenic, flat lands that makes you want to live that life even if for a short while.

Only all that comes a few minutes into the film in a striking contrast of sorts when it comes to changing backdrops in cinema. A startling opening sequence reveals a bloodied young woman running from something or someone in the urban streets. It isn't clear how far she runs, but she finds herself collapsing near the isolated farm land of a solitary farmer.

The farmer is Henk (Jaap Spijkers), a loner, possibly in his 40s, quite unaffected in his mannerisms and appears to live like a robot, religiously taking care of his ancestral property. The woman is Anna (Monic Hendrickx) who seems to have escaped from some place of immense suffering, but it is unclear exactly what, although some dream sequences while still reeling under the shock and fatigue of her great escape, hint at a possible forced prostitution and rape.

Henk takes Anna in, washes her, gives her place to rest and food to eat, but does not demand any kind of explanation. She doesn't offer any either, not necessarily because of reluctance of any kind but because they speak different languages. While he is Dutch, she is Polish. Regardless of the language barrier, Henk doesn't appear to be one to pry, and lets her be, just assuming she is some woman who may have been saved from a great deal of trouble.

Everything seems to have been accepted as it is. Finally when Anna has regained her composure, she offers (in her broken Dutch), albeit with an alarming alacrity, to help out as a cleaning lady in the house and stay on. Perhaps it is because she feels secure, considering no matter how gruff on the surface, Henk never makes advances on her, so she instantly trusts him. Henk appears grumpy upon hearing this proposal, but does not resist. His comfort zone has been disturbed slightly, and hence the reaction, perhaps, but he doesn't have the heart to ask her to go and is possibly secretly happy that his lonesome life will finally spice up with some much needed female company. The two continue to cohabit without speaking a word except exchanging some essential communication through her broken Dutch, learning word by word from her dictionary which Henk buys for her!

A mechanical existence continues with Anna helping out, him working his land, and both finally sharing a meal and retiring to bed in their respective rooms. This strange mutual understanding predictably begins to blossom into a more organic bond, when Anna's past knocks on their door, threatening to create ripples in the calm waters of their existence.
However, Karim Traïdia isn't really interested in answering questions about Anna's past, or making a mystery story out of the secret life of Anna. He is more interested in showcasing a unique attachment formed by accident, one that goes on to become strong and inseparable without much being communicated through words between the pair. The entire running time mostly focuses on the gradual fructification of this connection. Any formulaic development is cleverly tossed out the window, and even as you expect Henk to confront Anna regarding her history at some point of time, nary a word is discussed about where she came from, and what she was running from. In a sparsely populated land such as Groningen where the film is set, loneliness can really get to you and in such a circumstance it isn't entirely unconvincing if one quickly gels with a single human connect that comes across. In the process of the development of their bond, Traïdia in his deliberately paced screenplay, takes us through the inherent monotony of the lives of the farmers. 

Anna soon joins Henk on his farming routines. Both of them rest in the serenity and chomp away on their apples, the crunch of which is audibly loud in the serene silence of the fields. All credit to the remarkable sound design of course, which, for most of the film comprises of diegetic sounds, but also gives way to somber melancholic background scores at intervals. There is a lyrical quality in the way the scenery in the farm and the far off horizon is shot. It evokes an otherworldly feeling of peace and almost puts you in a meditative mood.

Even if one may feel that the storyline goes nowhere, the facet that is particularly well done and endearing to behold is the way Anna slowly starts behaving like Henk's wife, even bossing him around, forbidding him to do anything before a shower upon his return home, and insisting that he pray before he partakes of the meal she very earnestly cooks for him. While Henk continues to huff with Anna's display of authority over his life, he is obviously bowled over from inside. The feeling that for once, someone is being caring and lovingly commanding; affectionately teaching him manners and etiquettes is palpable beneath that unfriendly exterior. Once in a while, they make trips to town for shopping. It gives Anna delight and Henk experiences a newfound joy in Anna's company as she buys nice shirts for him. The progression of the story is in fact the progression of their relationship with a majority of the proceedings being devoid of dialog. There's some subtle humour in these tender moments that bring a smile to your face.

Monic Hendrickx's winning performance is one of the major strengths of the film. It is a spectacularly nuanced act, with every tiny movement of her facial muscles conveying a range of emotions. Be it that mischievous smile, the questioning look, the inability to communicate, the little joys and sorrows, all so effortless and discernible, it is a splendid act all the way. She is well supported by Jaap Spijkers as the initially emotionless farmer who is required to stay deadpan for the most part of the film, until Hendrickx's character begins to transform him and he becomes more human. It is a mighty convincing transformation at that.

This is particularly evident in the aftermath of the denouement that takes you by surprise. In the dead calm of the state of affairs you don't really expect things to get so far. However, it is the way this ending unfolds that slightly disappoints rather than the actual events, and yet it does not take away from the experience of the preceding 80 odd minutes. Give "The Polish Bride" a chance. It is a well-crafted, little-known gem that is in great need of attention.

Score: 9/10

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