I’m a foul cynic, and I’ve always had a hard time resolving this with the fact that I am also a senseless romantic. Both of these movies are love parables, and there is a sense that love catches up with these women, a sense of inevitability. Though I really love these movies from an aesthetic point of view, I must admit that I also love the romance them. These are both stories of strong women who stand up for themselves, and aren’t defined solely by their surroundings (or their men).
Hala (Claire Danes) in Polish Wedding is a wild-child daughter of a Polish family in 60s Detroit. Her mother is the strong, sexy matriarch Jadzia (Lena Olin). The plot centers around Hala and Jadzia, not particularly the father Bolek (Gabriel Byrne) or the 4 brothers, who all sort of blend together. It’s a story of Hala’s sexual awakening, Jadzia’s unquenchable sensuality and how they both meet with traditional Polish values. The movie culminates in the Procession of a Virgin towards the end of the movie. I don’t think it gives anything away to say that someone’s virginity is called into question.
Heaven is a Krystof Kryzlowski film (Decalogue, Red, White and Blue), directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Princess and the Warrior). It’s the story of Philippa (Cate Blanchet) and Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi). Philippa, frustrated by the inactivity and corruption of the Italian police (carabinieri in this case), commits an unspeakable act in the first scene. Filippo is a police officer and also her translator who falls in love with her. (slight spoiler) The story is about how they have to work together to evade the law. Like Polish Wedding, it’s a story of a woman surrounded by men, officers, guards, Filippo and his father and brother.
These aren’t strictly traditional love stories because neither Hala, Jadzia or Philippa is really in love with their husband (or lover), but all three heroines need a man’s help for different reasons. Hala and Jadzia need financial help while Philippa needs a guide and confidante. All 3 men react differently to being put in this utilitarian position, Russell (Hala’s lover) resents the truncation of his youth, Bolek (Jadzia’s husband), hates waiting ‘like a dog’ for his wife to return from her Polish Ladies’ Club meetings, but Filippo seems honored to be in this strong, exotic woman’s presence. In a way, they are all love stories without love, though all the women learn to love overtime.
One interesting thing I noticed, watching these movies in tandem, is how aesthetically similar they are. They both deal in a similar palette, with blonde heroines, rolling around in pastures, walking along traintracks, confessing in vaulted churches and wearing uniforms. In both of these movies it’s really only children, and the heroines who don’t wear uniforms. It creates a very stark contrast where Philipa and Hala can really stand out as unique in a sea of men who all sort of look the same (Jadzia uses her cleaning lady shirtdress and Polish Ladies club uniform to stand out in her own way).
Both of these movies have really kick ass soundtracks. Polish wedding’s Luis Bacalov sountrack features a fairly whimsical melody played alternately on accordion, clarinet and finally sung by a children’s choir, keeping the film light and humorous. Heaven features a powerfully minimal soundtrack by Arvo Pärt which makes every backdrop feel like a cathedral. As Arvo Pärt says in this masterclass, ‘The soul yearns to sing it endlessly.’ I think that can be said of both soundtracks, and also both movies. With melodies that seem familiar and settings that feel dateless, Polish Wedding and Heaven are both timeless fables, I’m sure I will continue to watch them anon. If you don’t like them, that’s cool, we don’t really have to be friends anymore.
Problems. As a black woman it’s a little dissappointing that there are no colored characters in either of these movies, but it would seem forced if there were. The movies both deal with nationalism and ethnicity in a way, it’s just that Polish people and Italian people don’t have dark colored skin. As a feminist, I’m not even sure Polish Wedding passes the Bechdel test since Jadzia is always talking about the men in her life and Hala is always talking to the men in her life, but there might be a conversation between Jadzia and her daughter in law that doesn’t mention either of their sons or husbands.