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Snow White, Russian Red—Poland’s dark fairytale

By Justin Villiers  

Poland's great post-communist future?

The cult novel from which Xawery Zulawski’s latest film Snow White, Russian Red was adapted has been hailed as “the Polish Trainspotting.” Yet this extraordinary piece of cinema, which was screened in early March as part of London’s 8th Polish film festival, is actually closer to the work of David Lynch and Gaspar Noé. Why, then, has it not found a distributor?

On its digitally-foliated surface, Snow White, Russian Red is a boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back-again tale. But looking closer we find ourselves caught in a hallucinatory, visceral, hilarious vision of the rotten core of post-communist, pre-EU Polish identity, seen through the dilated pupils of track-suited lovelorn yob, Silney.

With his bald head and child-like face, Zulawski’s protagonist resembles a fallen angel just landed on earth; as he steps from the murk into razor-sharp focus, sweating, it’s as if his scalp has been dipped in heated wax. The film’s exquisite high-definition photography is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Collateral, with palettes of queasy greens and misty browns, or of Sophia Coppolla’s Marie Antoinette, as the harsh electric reds of the Polish flag cut through hazy landscapes.

Spurned by his true love, the drug-addicted Magda, Silney (Borys Szyc) descends into a downward spiral of sex, drugs and violence. Searching for salvation he encounters a succession of angels and demons (an anorexic virgin Goth, a speed-wrecked gangster) and his life becomes wound in an ever-tighter Gordian knot. Then he meets Dorota Maslowska, author of the cult novel upon which the film is based. She is a police station receptionist. “You’re not here, I’m not here, we’re not here,” she tells our anti-hero as the walls of her office slide away. And suddenly a different narrative emerges: Silny, it seems, is offered the chance to retrieve Magda from hell, or lose her through drug-fueled paranoia and doubt. It’s a Vertigo or Camus’s Black Orpheus. Or are these the death-dreams of the dying man; is this Odd Man Out transferred to 21st-century Poland? A social-realist Jacob’s Ladder? All of the above? As with most great films, there are no easy answers.

Yet as too often is the case, it is precisely the great strengths of Snow White, Russian Red—its twisted meta-narrative, its stylistic iconoclasm, and its refusal to offer an easy moral centre—that would make most distributors wary. Its message is certainly not a commercially palatable one: Silney’s fantasies of destroying the Russian black market are laced with xenophobia; the unregulated international free market is seen to be destroying Poland. But whether or not you agree with its politics, this film is a brilliantly inventive, shockingly funny, and strangely moving portrait of contemporary urban life, which makes most independent low-budget cinema look passé and bland by comparison. And most importantly, the questions it asks about identity in the postmodern age are pertinent to countless settings: it could equally take place on a South London estate. Forget the disappointment of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. This is the dark fairytale to watch. Let’s hope some distributor sees it that way.

Click here for more information on the 8th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, which runs until 13th April.

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