A Film a Week - Knives Out

Previously published on Cineuropa
Knives Out is as independent as Polish cinema gets. It was financed privately, filmed on a single set of locations (a house with a yard and a nearby forest) over several days on a shoestring budget, and with a cast consisting of seven acting students. The film was ignored by the state funds and is even being distributed independently in its own country. The screenings are usually followed by an emotional debate with experienced director Przemyslaw Wojcieszek (known for films such as How to Disappear Completely, Secret and Made in Poland. After its international premiere at the Crossing Europe Film Festival in Linz, some festival exposure could be expected, but the chances of regular international distribution are slim.
The film’s strongest point is also its main problem: the political aspect. Wojcieszek’s standpoint is that the parliamentary and presidential elections held in 2015, and won by a large margin by the populist right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS), were a shock of epic proportions that would not only transform Poland as we know it, but would also have repercussions on the state of things across the entire EU. Wojcieszek claims – and the statistics support him – that in the elections, the votes of the younger demographic groups, both urban and rural, were critical, and they either went right or abstained. The context is too delicate for the current Polish government, sensitive to all forms of criticism, but too local for the wider, European picture, too.
Knives Out is an honest effort to face the new reality and examine the state of Polish society, especially its younger generations, and try to figure out what went wrong. The characters are twenty-somethings from an unnamed town who have not seen one another since high-school graduation but who meet up at a party. There are three couples, two heterosexual (one of which is conservative and lives in relative poverty; the other one is hosting the party, and is liberal and well-off) and a lesbian, leftist one, consisting of a young, sought-after app developer and her partner, an activist. The mere presence of the host’s Ukrainian co-worker, Solomiya, is a catalyst for unpleasant events. As the amount of wine and vodka drunk by the people around the table steadily rises, the boasting about the best generation switches to statements about love, then to the best country and nation in the world, and finally rude jokes turn into ethnic slurs. Solomiya could not be more in danger even if she had a target drawn on her back.
The film is structured like a play in two acts, which is to be expected coming from a writer-director with considerable theatre experience. The atmosphere is marked with a somewhat rough style similar to American indie cinema of the 1990s, with black-and-white photography in the 4:3 ratio, filmed with a hand-held camera and featuring abrupt cuts in editing. Therefore, there is no stale sense of filmed theatre, and the proceedings are kept kinetic and lively. However, bearing in mind the economy of the script, Wojcieszek sometimes goes too far in skipping the steps that outline the shifting of the characters’ motivations, which makes some turns of events fairly unlikely. But overall, as a film, as well as a sociological and political exposé, Knives Out stands very solidly.

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