Vol 1, No 14
27 September 1999
A Fatalistic Feminism
Dorota Kedzierzawska's Nic
Andrew J Horton
Despite the rhetoric of Communism, gender equality has not been a feature of Central European life in the past. It has certainly not been much of a feature of the region's film-making, and although there are, or have been, female directors in Central Europe (Vera Chytilova in the Czech Republic, Marta Meszaros and Judit Elek in Hungary and Agnieszka Holland in Poland), and even feminist ones (Chytilova especially has been labelled feminist), the voice of women is largely absent from Central European cinema. The female directors that there are present a view of life which is decidedly rooted in male conceptions of gender and sexuality.
One interesting example of this phenomenon is Nic (Nothing, 1998), the latest film from Dorota Kedzierzawska, the rising star of the 1990s Polish film industry.
Whilst Hela is the personification of a devoted young wife - caring, attentive and attractive to boot - her husband has little appreciation of these saintly qualities. To add to her problems, she has three troublesome children running under her feet. When she finds out that a fourth is on the way, her only reaction is total despair. She keeps the pregnancy secret from her husband and tries to get an illegal abortion by bribing a doctor. The doctor's morals, however, do not allow him to perform such immoral practices. Or at least, not at the price that Hela is offering. She tries to induce a miscarriage with the unknowing aid of her overly energetic daughter, but that only jeopardises her own life.
Hela is trapped in a world ruled by men, where women hide in kitchens and care for children but have no place in life of their own. She walks the lonely streets, somehow as if she doesn't belong there. Standing on an extended flight of city steps, she looks like a bizarrely displaced victim from Sergei Eisenstein's Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925). Hers is an emotional massacre, however, not a physical one. And she has nowhere to hide.
The unwelcome baby is born and promptly disposed of. After burying the body in a park, Hela runs away with her children and finds refuge with an elderly couple, who take pity on her. But her new lease on life is short-lived. The police track her down and she is placed on trial. When she is asked whether she can say anything in her defence, her reply is: "Nothing."
Kedzierzawska tries everything to build up sympathy for the character of Hela, most of all through her simple beauty and her tender femininity. Her looks are enhanced by the film's visual style; the tale is shot with stunning, albeit rather over-the-top, cinematography from Arthur Reinhart. The visual world is one of sepia-washed photographs, shafts of light penetrating the dust-filled air and crumbling textures brought to the fore; an olde-worlde life of olde-worlde values. She lives in a 19th-century apartment block and wears simple, white clothes which could belong to any era. In fact, it is hard to grasp when the action is meant to take place, and the reality of the modern age only leaks through - and disturbingly so - in a couple of shots: a few cars passing in the background or the stylish clothes worn by Hela's husband. The shock comes with the realisation that Hela is trapped in the values of the past whilst the world around her is that of the present.
Nothing is spared in the attempt to make Hela out to be a victim. Few people could argue with Kedzierzawska's premise that Hela is guilty of the crime, but she is not the one who caused the tragedy. As such, Nic is an effective piece of cinematic argument for a woman's right to choose, although it is probably more interesting a film in Catholic Poland, where abortion is restricted and the legislation which covers the subject is commonly known as "the anti-abortion law." However, in countries where this debate is less polarised, Nic will seem like a rather odd, if not bland, piece of film-making.
Much of the film's strangeness lies in the treatment of Hela. Kedzierzawska is so keen to lay on the sense of tragedy (which, as even the usually eulogistic notes in the Karlovy Vary catalogue pointed out, is "so common that it verges on banality") that she makes Hela a rather unappealing character based on a way of thinking which is in itself somewhat out-dated. Hela is a passive victim and, worse still, the driving pathos of the story stems from the fact that her husband cares so little for her blind devotion. Somewhere under this lies the implication that Kedzierzawska believes that such compliant and passive women are still a role model for femininity - and even for feminism - and that the main gender problem in society is that men have no respect for this passivity. Hela can only survive through the charity and goodwill of other people, and she is stymied when she meets anyone who can't or won't provide it.
From Hela's total obedience in the face of such dastardly behaviour on the part of her spouse and from her utter reliance on the charity of others (the pawnbroker who sells her back her wedding ring at a loss and the couple who take her in), it is hard not to conclude that she is some sort of moron, albeit a highly attractive and stunningly photographed one. The whole notion of tragedy, in the Greek sense of the term, is that Fate is at play and the consequences cannot be avoided - the future has already been written. And yet Hela's acceptance of this classical sense of tragedy seems at odds with how we perceive modern life. It is a defeatist attitude and, at its heart, an anti-feminist philosophy. Notions of Fate and classical tragedy have been used successfully in portraying the unhappy lot of women (for example, in many films made in Russia before the 1917 October Revolution), but films which employ these devices successfully show women locked in subservience despite their activity, dynamism and emotional honesty and not because of an intrinsic passivity.
Such passive characterisation, though, is not surprising from a Central European director. Feminism in Central Europe has still got the "feminine" firmly lodged in it, and feminist philosophy in films, if not elsewhere, seems to advocate improving the situation for women in Central European society without actually altering the status quo and the gender balance of power.
Nic is not a bad film. It is in many ways fresh and original, and stands out for its extreme concentration on visual style and languid pace. If nothing else, it is a sincere attempt to push back the frontiers of film-making, even though its success in doing so is debatable. However, if you ask me if I can say anything in defence of Nic's feminism, my reply is: "Nothing."
Andrew J Horton, 27 September 1999
Kinoeye at Karlovy Vary
The following is a list of other films shown at Karlovy Vary which have been covered by Kinoeye.
Minulost (The Past) by Ivo Trajkov, Czech Republic
Historia kina v Popielawach (The Story of Cinema in Popielawy) by Jan Jakub Kolski, Poland
V leru (Idle Running) by Janez Burger, Slovenia
Cvety kalenduly (Marigolds in Flower) by Sergei Sniezhkin, Russia
Pelisky (Cosy Dens) by Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic
Co chytnes v zite (In the Rye) by Roman Vavra, Czech Republic
Pripyat (Pripyat) by Nikloaus Geyrhalter, Austria
Rychle pohyby oci (Rapid Eye Movement) by Radim Spacek, Czech Republic
Totalitarnii roman (Totalitarian Romance) by Viacheslav Sorokin, Russia
Tri muskarca Melite Zganjer (Melita and her Three Men) by Snejzana Tribuson, Croatia
Demony wojny wedlug Goi (Demons of War by Goya) by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, Poland
Blokpost (Checkpoint) by Alexandr Rogozhkin, Russia
Tockovi (Wheels) by Djordje Milosavljevic, Yugoslavia
Gengszterfim (Gangster Film) by Gyorgy Szomjas, Hungary
Nekem lampast adott kezembe as Ur Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest) by Miklos Jancso, Hungary
Krava (The Cow) by Karel Kachyna, Czech Republic
Okraina (Outskirts) by Peter Lutsik, Russia
Pasti, pasti, pasticky (Traps) by Vera Chytilova, Czech Republic
Kinai vedelem (Chinese Defence) by Gabor Tompa, Hungary
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