On memories turning to dreams, images turning to ghosts, and the intermingling of the living and the dead
Demon The Orchard
Director: Marcin Wrona
Screenplay: Marcin Wrona and Pawel Maslona
Starring: Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska, Andrzej Grabowski, Tomasz Schuchardt, Tomasz Zietek, Adam Woronowicz, Wlodzimierz Press, Cezary Kosinski and Maria Debska
Rated R / 1 hour, 34 minutes / 2.35:1
(out of four)
Their haunted faces permeate a temporal fog, lingering uncomfortably amidst - and between - moments in time, those long forgotten and those yet to come. They peer through rain-streaked windows, hands and mouths pressed against the glass like they're stuck in the Phantom Zone, their breath helpless to escape. Their warped figures appear in reflection, emerging in horror or bewilderment, as if not quite understanding who (or where, or when) they are. They look on through old photographs hung in derelict houses, disapproving eyes penetrating the collective conscience of the living. They even materialize in the flesh, as if unentombed, the eternally invisible - the unknown, unrecognized, forgotten - making a forlorn plea for recognition.
The abstrusely spectral presence of these memories of the past dominates Marcin Wrona's extraordinary Demon, which hauntingly interrogates history and memory (are they not one and the same?) in the form of a wedding celebration that goes strangely, painfully awry. With a deceptively surreal touch, Wrona pushes and pulls the film's state of mind, creating an effect that feels simultaneously remembered, forgotten and foretold.
The film's preoccupation with images within surfaces is a potent evocation of the way memories themselves - of people, of events, of places, houses, even entire countries - are captured and immortalized, even against their will. Again and again, we see figures (both those we know, i.e. the main characters in the film, and those we don't) held captive - trapped - by glass, mirrors, windows, frames, their images distorted. Reflections of the past are projected back to invade the present; without their knowing it, these wedding guests are in communion with the past, with the dead. Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, they, too, are becoming subconscious. Becoming memories - cloudy, half-forgotten, half-dreamed.
The emphasis on moments composed and frozen in time is similarly reflected in Wrona and cinematographer Pawel Flis' distinctly painterly compositions. The crushed greys and browns of the color palette, the way the textures and nuances of surfaces - lived-in, haunted, broken - create an emotional resonance on the faces and bodies that dominate the camera's focus ... I mean, it's practically Rembrandt. The evocative - often anguished - poses of the characters suggest the same, even as the film itself conjures the surreal emotional logic and psychosexual volatility of Fuseli.
We sense something may be amiss from the start, just as Piotr (Itay Tiran, his performance an extraordinary feat of physical expression) is arriving in the town that will be his new home, to marry the woman he loves (Zaneta, played by Agnieszka Zulewska) and join the family that is affectionate and cheekily derisive toward him in equal measure. He arrives by ferry, and just as he hits the shore he's met with looks of fear and contempt - particularly from a mysterious woman wading in the shallow waters - as if his presence, or the wedding set to ensue, is an affront to someone or something. A violation of a delicate balance.
It sets a mood that even the playful frenzy of the ensuing hours can't quite overcome. Piotr and Zaneta's affection is clear, and there is a charming innocence to the way they talk about the life they're going to build together. And still, for Piotr, a certain haunt lingers.
It only grows more sinister as the film moves along - from the cheerful day of his arrival through an unnerving night, and all the way to the wedding itself and the celebration afterward, during which he can barely keep himself together. Demon can be described as both a ghost story and a story of possession, but it doesn't behave like either. Its ideas of both - of possession as something that reaches far deeper into the distant past; of memories themselves as ghostly manifestations of legacy, history, guilt - are on a different register than standard genre material. (There's a key shot that overtly references a famous shot from a legendary film. It's not simply a callback, but a deeply significant reflection of the film's fluid psychological and temporal perspective, a brilliant homage specifically because of the way it marries its own ideas with the ones it's referencing.)
By whom is he possessed? By whom is he haunted? Are his thoughts, visions, memories his own, or someone else's? What's fascinating is that, once it's identified who or what might be intruding on his psyche, the mystery only deepens, the existential dread settling in as a seemingly permanent state.
As far as personal memories go, weddings are about as big and emotionally important as it gets. Wrona takes an exquisitely gentle approach to the psychological toll this wedding night takes, particularly on the bride - from tranquil, to ecstatic, to anxious, to heartbroken. There's an elegance to the gradual way the film's dreamlike mood sets in; it all seems rather normal, and then incrementally changes, to the point that before anyone realizes it this wedding has come to resemble a nightmare of inescapable dread that feels less and less real by the moment.
Yet even as the groom's behavior gets more and more frightening, the guests remain. There's a sense of Buñuelian doom and despair that sets in - which, as with Buñuel, has a savagely funny edge to it - as the wedding families and their guests just hover, hypnotically and lethargically, at this would-be celebration, this shared memory slowly slipping into existential oblivion. What's so masterful about Demon is the way Wrona slowly shifts the film's atmospheric equilibrium. Its surreal tone emerges only gradually, and then feels as if it's been in place all along.
Memory can often be what you want it to be. Perhaps more accurately, memory is what it wants to be. It has a life of its own. It's malleable, and open to suggestion, and to a great extent even illusory. A memory is recreated every time you try to access it, a constant process of remembering, reimagining, redacting, forgetting. Demon begins as the creation of a happy memory; as it moves along, its sense of reality moves with it. By the end, we get the distinct feeling that when this moment in time - this night of celebration - is recalled and recreated in the memories of those who lived it, it won't feel like a memory at all. That dream wedding will have become a dreamt one.