My Big Fat Polish Wedding? Thankfully not. Feature-debutant Smarzowski manages to take one of the most hackneyed sub-genres in cinema – comically chaotic nuptials – and produce something delightfully scabrous, bracingly misanthropic, uncompromisingly intense. Afterwards you may feel in urgent need of a shower – this is a picture whose very celluloid seems soaked in sweat, blood, vomit, piss and lashings of cheap Slovak vodka (consumed, we're told, "for the kick, not for the taste.")
It's the wedding-day from hell: though the ceremony itself passes with only a slight hitch, the problems start as soon as the reception gets under way in a hired community hall. Disaster piles upon disaster, the toilets become a smoke-filled zone of noxiously Stygian gloom, and anything that can go wrong duly does. Such problems are invariably due to the venality and corruption of the participants – most of whom end up staggering, fist-throwing, bile-spewing, foul-mouthed drunk long before the first painful rays of sunshine poke above the horizon.
It's a very long night, featuring numerous dangerous, over-the-limit drives in dodgy cars, a very timely power cut, a stroppy band of hired musicians (whose songs, refreshingly, provide the film's only music), some humiliatingly sexy public 'games', the belting out of patriotic anthems, and an enormous, troublesome tub of rancid bigos stew. Half Vinterberg's Festen ("happy" celebration occasions family-implosion), half Altman's A Wedding (inconvenient death of grandparent), the picture deserves credit for follows the courage of its own sour convictions all the way down the aisle – sorry, line – right up to the closing (Altmanish) crane-shot that accompanies the end credits.
There are no real innocents on view, but chief among sinners is Wojnar (Marian Dziedziel, excellent) the harrassed, sixtyish father of beautiful, blonde bride Kasia (Tamara Arciuch). Businessman Wojnar is a thoroughly immoral, palm-greasing rogue whose receives a come-uppance of an increasingly (and pleasingly) extreme kind as the hours pass: by the end he's managed to alienate everyone around him, with even his faithful dog (sensibly) runnning off after one kicking too many. While the dog seems a noble enough pooch, the two-legged participants all seem to be on the take and/or the make, from crooked lawyer to feckless police to bullnecked mafia heavies to the emphatically less-than-pious local priest (who has the nerve to warn that "the love of money is the root of all evil" during the service) and the latter's mysterious, ominously well-connected "in-law".
Everybody seems to be kith and/or kin, connected by family, friendship or (shady) business. In a way, this is a very Polish story – even the title 'Wesele' is familiar to domestic audiences from S.Wypianski's 1901 play, filmed in 1973 by Andrzej Wajda – and, in a topical touch, the European Union provides pivotal to one of the numerous ongoing subplots. But enough of the (bad) behaviour is sufficiently recognisable and universal to ensure that The Wedding can be appreciated far beyond its nation's borders, at least in any country where family occasions spiral out of control. Working with a notably strong, extended ensemble, Smarzowski has to choreograph proceedings as much as direct them: there always seems to be something going on in the front and back of every detail-crammed scene, ensuring that a second viewing is desirable, perhaps even essential, to grasp everything that's going on (and there's an awful lot happening on the multi-layered soundtrack, too).
Smarzowski's expert control of the picture's tone means that potentially melodramatic, episodic or sitcom-like happenings feel integrated within the organic whole. This is pitch-black satire, with everything crucially cranked a notch into mildly caricatured extremity: a comedy of riotous, debauched, gleeful excess, carefully observing classical dramatic unities of geography and chronology. But The Wedding isn't just a catalogue of calamity and cynicism: Smarzowski smoothly builds up to an unexpectedly romantic and optimistic finale – one so very hard-won that it feels anything but sentimental. Sensitive souls, however, should perhaps steer clear – like that socially-lubricating, tongue-loosening firewater which is gulped down in liver-mushing quantities throughout, The Wedding leaves us intoxicated, a little demented, and giddily eager for more.
28th March, 2006
THE WEDDING : [8/10] : Wesele : Poland 2004 : Wojciech SMARZOWSKI : 104 mins (timed)