Saturday 20 July 2019

Visibility: "My Friend the Polish Girl"

My Friend the Polish Girl is a film with one foot planted very firmly in our present: a mock-doc shot in and around London, it's peppered with emojis and hashtags, and opens with title cards in which the fictional documentarist signals her intent to make "a film about immigrants and Brexit" while warning the finished product didn't turn out quite as anyone expected. It's also, however, a film with at least a toe or two in the 1960s. Shooting in monochrome Academy ratio frames and very consciously deconstructing everything they show us, the actual directors - a pair of Polish newcomers, Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek - hark back to such key Godardian texts as Une femme mariée and Two or Three Things I Know About Her, working up a gimlet-eyed study of a woman adrift in the harsh modern world: Alicja (Aneta Piotrowska), a 32-year-old aspirant actress inhabiting a flat on the Edgware Road, and a fairly lowly spot on the capital's socioeconomic food chain. It's not always a flattering picture, which may explain why it's taken the indie route to reach us. (The B-movie enthusiast in Godard would appreciate the name of the distributor: Republic.) Yet it's a risky, complex and interesting one, all the more distinctive for not being the type of film British filmmakers are traditionally encouraged to make.

Banaszkiewicz and Dymek hook us instantly with the strained relationship between the filmmaker-within-the-film - a pushy American peeper (Emma Friedman-Cohen, bearing the chilly air of a young Lionel Shriver) who thinks nothing of smuggling cameras into hospices, or filming Alicja as she sleeps - and a subject who presents as at once victim and opportunist, a collector of followers and likes who clearly sees the documentary as a means of boosting her visibility. The directors usher Piotrowska into situations that, if they aren't entirely unscripted, retain a ring of realness about them: an appointment with a Harley Street quack (face obscured) is followed by a meeting in the Groucho with a flowery-shirted chancer who offers Alicja a role as a Russian call girl in what he describes as "a metaphysical gangster movie". As our heroine lets slip during her wardrobe test (keenly attended by the all-male crew) that "this is my seventh part as a prostitute", you're reminded of all those Eastern European glamour girls bussed in to be stripped and groped by Danny Dyer and worse on the sets of our tuppence-ha'penny crime duds, and My Friend the Polish Girl announces itself as a more than faintly radical proposition: a lowish-budget Britpic setting itself up in opposition to the working practices of the poverty-row Britpic.

One wrinkle is that this film-within-the-film-within-the-film isn't specifically Brexit-related - these kinds of movies were being bashed out long before 2016 - though Banaszkiewicz and Dymek could always argue that it's their fictional documentarist who's being opportunistic in deploying the B-word. If there's a thematic connection, it lies in how, once her kindly British boyfriend leaves the picture, Alicja proves painfully reliant on deeply dubious men - her vulnerability arguably mirrors that of the wider migrant population. (And the American watching her every move appears no less ready to exploit.) Banaskiewicz and Dymek foster a melancholy mood and display an austere compositional sense that fits their bleak narrative trajectory: here is a London in a permanent state of winter, with an ill wind blowing down every street. (And this is the hotbed of enlightenment that voted overwhelmingly to Remain, you'll remember.) One sequence struck me as misjudged - softcore, male-gazey business of a kind long debunked in those Sixties art movies angling for the brown-raincoat crowd - yet several more prove hard to shake in a needling, confrontational work from filmmakers keen that their host nation should take a long, hard look at itself. Turn your back on it, if you choose, but that doesn't mean there aren't some uncomfortable truths here.

My Friend the Polish Girl is now playing at London's ICA and Prince Charles Cinemas.

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