[Note: This post contains moderate spoilers. Updated 10/5/16.]
Early in Luca Guadagnino’s luscious Euro-thriller A Bigger Splash, live-wire music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes) pauses while en route to a restaurant in order to urinate on a Mediterranean hillock, spattering what is evidently an ancient shrine in the process. This prompts an exasperated appeal from documentarian Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is already weary of the other man’s careless, self-absorbed manner: “Come on, that’s a grave.” Harry just dismisses this concern with a shrug, remarking dryly, “Yeah, well, Europe is a grave.” It’s a morbidly amusing observation, but also the non-sequitur of a narcissist who despises being held accountable for his dickish behavior.
There’s a similar moment in Polish writer-director Marcin Wrona’s unnerving and unexpectedly droll Demon. Pitched midway between a ghost story, realist drama, and arch cultural satire, the film tells the story of a bridegroom who is (seemingly) possessed by a restless Jewish spirit on his wedding day. At the heart of the film’s many mysteries is a human skeleton that has recently been exhumed on a little farm owned by the bride’s family—the very property where the matrimonial festivities are being held, in fact. Responding to alarm at the thought of a corpse being unearthed just a stone’s throw from the feasting and dancing, one wedding guest dismissively snorts, “This whole country is built on corpses.”
This moment of cynical pragmatism stands out in a story overwhelmingly populated by characters who preferred coping strategy for anything upsetting is anxious denial. For the realist, there is an undeniable appeal in bluntly confronting the blood-drenched reality of history’s sweep—particularly in Poland, which as historian Timothy Snyder contends, has arguably been victim to more mass murder per capita than any other nation-state in the past century. Ultimately, however, the dismissal of human slaughter as the mere background noise of civilization has the same net effect as outright denial. It permits the cynic to proceed on their current trajectory without having to reckon with history’s ghosts, or, indeed, without having to make any uncomfortable adjustments to their current paradigm at all. Like Harry in A Bigger Splash, the wedding guest in Demon bats away obligations to the dead by invoking death’s ubiquity.
Perhaps inevitably for a Polish film about disinterred bones and Jewish phantoms, Demon is not a subtle work of cinema. It doesn’t so much wear its metaphorical character on its sleeve as announce it with fireworks and orchestral fanfare. Director Wrona forgoes any attempt at understated subtext, and instead focuses on establishing a nerve-wracking atmosphere, and, more strikingly, on showcasing the myriad ways that characters confront the festering realities that are oozing up beneath their feet. While Demon is foremost a roundabout Holocaust Film by way of supernatural and psychological horror tropes, it’s also more generally about the miserably inadequate ways that societies deal with history that they would prefer to forget.
Wrona’s storytelling style is reserved and largely naturalistic, revealing only incidental fragments of the film’s scenario over the course of its opening 20 or so minutes. This makes for an undeniably measured and low-key approach, but also one that is skillfully timed. The director gives the viewer just enough time to sort out who the characters are and what their relationships are to one another, and then proceeds to crank up the supernatural menace. Polish-British engineer Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran) has arrived in the Old Country to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) following a brief, Internet-facilitated courtship. Although Piotr’s Polish is rusty and Zaneta’s wealthy, limping bear of a father (Andrzej Grabowski) broadly disapproves of the wedding’s abruptness, the happy couple are clearly smitten. Moreover, the groom has won over his wife-to-be’s garrulous older brother Jasny (Tomasz Shuchardt), and is already making plans to renovate the rustic farmhouse and barn which Zaneta inherited from her paternal grandparents.
Said farm is also the setting for the wedding reception, and while performing a bit of brush clearing with a borrowed backhoe the day before the nuptials, Piotr accidentally unearths an unmarked grave on the grounds. Visibly shaken and uncertain as to what to do, he ultimately elects to simply re-cover the bones and keep the discovery a secret. The dead don’t take too kindly to this desecration, however, and shortly thereafter Piotr begins hearing phantasmal noises in the drafty farmhouse and catching glimpses of a pale woman shrouded in yellowed lace. This supernatural stalking culminates late that night while a thunderstorm rages, as Piotr is lured out of the house and pulled screaming into the devouring muck of the disturbed grave.
The next day, Zaneta observes that Piotr seems to be acting oddly before, during, and after the wedding ceremony. He certainly doesn’t look well: waxen skin slick with sweat; eyes ringed with dark smudges; recurring nosebleeds; and a coating of fresh dirt that keeps reappearing on his hands, no matter how many times he scrubs them. While the wedding goers dance raucously and obliviously at the reception, hideous wailing and taunting visions of a spectral maiden bedevil Piotr. When he stumbles across an inexplicably open grave at the location where he re-buried the remains the previous day, he is finally compelled to confess his ghastly discovery to Zaneta’s father and brother. Upon returning to the site, however, the group finds nothing, leaving Piotr looking like a stammering Lou Costello, pointing to the spot where a mummy was standing just moments ago.
Before long a frazzled Piotr is begging the bewildered priest (Cezary Kosinki) for confirmation that he is not losing his mind. “Do the dead ever appear to the living?” he pleads, but the blandly officious clergyman doesn’t seem to even understand the question. Owing to the copious vodka that flows at the reception, Piotr’s curious behavior goes unnoticed by most of the wedding guests for a surprisingly long period of time. When his actions take a turn into the overtly bizarre, Zaneta’s frantic family manages to keep the festivities going (and the focus off Piotr) by maintaining a steady supply of alcohol and music. After two separate, shockingly violent seizures on the dance floor that leave Piotr semi-conscious and mumbling in Yiddish, the groom is restrained and confined to the farmhouse’s cellar, the better to keep him away from inquisitive guests. He thereafter insists that he is not Piotr but a young woman named “Hanna,” whom an elderly Jewish schoolteacher (Wlodzimierz Press) identifies as a local beauty that went missing some eight decades ago. The wizened man concludes that Piotr has become the host of a dybbuk, the dislocated soul of a deceased person with the power to possess living individuals.
The mostly distinctive aspect of Demon is how little the film is concerned with resolving the mystery of Hanna’s death and its connection (if any) to Zaneta’s clan. Wrona’s screenplay—co-written with Pawel Maslona and loosely adapted from the Polish play Adherence by Piotr Rowicki—doesn’t present this tale as a puzzle box to be solved by either the characters or the viewer. One is left to infer from scattered details how and why Hanna’s lifeless body went into the ground so many years ago. Tellingly, most of those details are plucked from the memory of the aforementioned schoolteacher, whom the film establishes early on as a distracted, rambling old fellow settling into the earliest stages of dementia. Hanna’s ethnicity and the time frame of her demise point to a Nazi-perpetrated war crime, but suggestions of jealous rage and psychosexual nastiness also snake between the lines. The film’s preference for ambiguity also extents to present-day events. Demon’s final scenes leave numerous unanswered questions, particularly with respect to Piotr’s fate and the incriminating behavior of Jasny’s skeevy friend Ronaldo (Tomadsz Zietek).
Indeed, Wrona’s proximal interest lies not in the dead-Jewish-girl plot—substantial portions of which remain submerged in uncertainty—but in depicting the characters’ reactions when the jagged edges of that plot protrude into their path. While Piotr’s baffled anguish is poignant, Demon treats him as a victim rather than a tragic protagonist, progressively directing its attention more decisively to the people that surround him. As the dybbuk gradually takes hold of Piotr’s mortal flesh, the other characters flail about in desperation, latching onto any stratagem that allows them to keep moving forward without having to acknowledge the ghost in their midst. Zaneta alone responds with feverish concern for Piotr’s well-being, not to mention righteous anger at her father‘s blatantly untruthful denials regarding the corpse buried out back. The bride aside, the film’s characters seem most concerned with keeping the party going and exonerating themselves from any responsibility for Piotr’s doomed situation.
One can detect traces of Demon’s theatrical heritage in the slightly amused way that the film catalogs this outburst of mass denial, one absurd conversation at a time. When Zenata’s father accuses Jasny of bringing home a defective husband for his sister, the bride’s brother practically trips over himself in his haste to walk back his involvement, protesting “I don’t even know the guy that well!” The mother of the bride is less interested in her son-in-law’s welfare than in ferreting out the troublemakers who are spreading rumors among her guests about Jewish demons. The perpetually soused town doctor (Adam Woronowicz) keeps chalking up Piotr’s behavior to wedding day nerves, in between self-righteous and laughably bullshit declarations of his own sobriety. The priest doesn’t even want to get involved, and spends most of the reception politely and unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a ride back to the rectory.
Demon’s most critical eye is reserved for the reactions of Zenata’s father, who blusters frantically through every fresh calamity like a drowning man fussing over whether his necktie is on straight. Faced with the possibility that his only daughter has just married a man who is (at best) severely mentally ill, the old man’s only thought is to exercise damage control on his own reputation. The flop sweat is profuse as he grins cheerily through even the most awkward and disturbing moments, asserting that everything is fine and urging guests to stay and have another drink. This attitude of brazen, unconvincing denial culminates in a surreal sunrise speech, in which he cajoles his exhausted guests to forget everything that happened over the course of the night. “There was no groom. There was no wedding. You were never here.” Like Justine’s marriage in Melancholia, Zenata’s is over before the wedding is even concluded.
Light of touch, Demon is not. One could scarce devise a more on-the-nose metaphor for Polish discomfort with its lingering national scars than a nervous, hobbling Pole pleading with his fellows to forget about the ghost of a murdered Jew. Other allegorical angles abound, however. Unquestionably, the alternately flustered, ashamed, and furious responses to Piotr’s erratic conduct echoes the way that families and societies of all sorts react to mental illness, as if it were a deformity to be hidden behind closed doors and never mentioned in polite company. Slender but unmistakable threads of xenophobia run through the characters’ attitudes towards Piotr, whose facility with English and life spent outside the homeland mark him as culturally suspect in more provincial Polish eyes. Moreover, the film hints that Piotr is himself perhaps a secular Jew, most memorably when he breaks his wedding wine glass with a stomp instead of tossing it to the ground in the Polish Catholic fashion. The dybbuk’s selection of Piotr as its vessel is thus not arbitrary. The humiliation that Zenata’s family feels for his behavior is as much about their discomfort with Jewishness (or non-Polishness) marrying into their lineage as it is about national wartime sins.
Undoubtedly, some of the film’s metaphorical intricacies are lost on this American writer. There are hints that Demon is, in part, a broad critique of the Polish absorption with Golden Age fallacies, as evidenced by elderly characters' wistful longing for the Way Things Used to Be. When an old man claims that once upon time "we were all Poles," Wrona also seems to be taking aim at nationalist myths regarding the country's Commonwealth-era glories, as well as its refusal to acknowledge the multi-ethnic character of its historical demographics. (The latter is a pitfall even for video game developers, apparently, as evidenced by the criticism of racial representation in CD Projeckt’s acclaimed Polish fantasy RPG The Wicher 3: Wild Hunt.)
Whatever Demon lacks in subtlety, it compensates for it with its crisply farcical dialog and potent air of gnawing dread. Wrona is focused in his preservation of the film’s magical realism, teasing the viewer with occasional feints in the direction of a CGI unreality that never appears, much to Demon’s benefit. When Piotr arches his back agonizingly in the throes of a dybbuk-induced seizure, for example, his body seems on the cusp of the twisting into a specimen of bone-snapping body horror, but instead it collapses into a flaccid stupor. Wrona evinces a restraint in his horror methods wholly absent from the film’s sledgehammer approach to metaphor. This has the effect of bestowing his little creepshow touches with added chill, such as when a pallid hand under Piotr’s bed presses a dropped ampule of sedative into the doctor’s hand, much to the physician’s mute shock. Borrowing freely from Stanley Kubrick’s features, composers Marcin Macuk and Krzysztof Penderecki fill the film’s soundscape with atonal keening and droning, suggesting a hidden world that is at once sepulchral and satanic. Components of the sound design mutate in deliberately disorienting fashion, as when a piercing wail that initially seems to be in Piotr’s head evolves into the exuberant vocalizations of a singing wedding guest.
Wrona nearly squanders all of his directorial goodwill in one of Demon’s final shots, a cheap Kubrickean homage that just feels shamelessly hackneyed. The scene that precedes that offending shot, however, personifies the filmmaker’s talent for crafting eerie, indelible moments out of otherwise heavy-handed metaphor. As the still-inebriated wedding guests stumble away from the reception in the morning, they climb unsteadily to the top of a misty ridge, running headlong into a funeral procession. The wedding-goers react with glazed indifference, pushing their way through the line of mourners, who seem too stupefied by this encounter to be properly offended. It’s the kind of moment that is thick with potential meaning—political, sociological, and existential—but truly lingers because of the uncanny tone, evocative texture, and bone-dry wit that Wrona imparts to it.