Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
For the last several years, Polish cinema has given us a lot of great insight into the human condition in regards to romantic relationships and the perceived roles within them, both from gender and societal standpoints. Some prestigious examples include the recently Oscar-nominated Corpus Christi, Cold War, and Ida, all of which find new and profound ways to make the audience question not only their own interpersonal dynamics, but their own lifelong biases about what a person is and should be.
The latest entry in this regard is Rotten Ears, directed by Piotr Dylewski, who co-wrote the film alongside leading lady Magdalena Celmer. It’s the most direct look we’ve had at romantic coupling outside of Cold War, but a lot of the drama comes not from the successful recent framework of Polish films, but seemingly from more surreal influences like Akira Kurosawa’s classic, Rashomon, which still fascinates to this day due to its unique structure of seeing the same story through multiple points of view.
Set at a lakeside cabin, a young couple, Marzena and Janek (Celmer and Mikołaj Chroboczek) have come to the home of a therapist named Henryk (Michał Majnicz) for some non-traditional couples counseling. They’ve been married for just two years, and already the passion is gone, though it’s clear that affection still remains despite unresolved issues.
Immediately our perceptions are challenged, as the characters look and act in seemingly contradictory ways. Marzena is extroverted and impulsive, yet her outfit of drab, grey, casual clothes would suggest a blasé attitude. Janek, on the other hand, is aloof and reserved despite a gaudy, loud shirt, khaki shorts, and an Ernest & Julio Gallo baseball cap that just screams he’s a tourist and wants everyone to know it.
But this is the trick the film is playing on the audience, because within minutes, the costuming makes perfect sense. As Henryk makes the couple dance on their own to music he provides, Marzena’s casual outfit seems quite sensible, because she can move freely and be as expressive as she likes, while Janek’s façade becomes ever so much more obvious. He’s putting on that outfit like he’s putting on an air of jovial gamesmanship, but really he feels silly and put upon, and looks just as constricted as he probably feels.
Even Henryk himself is a mystery. Despite the couple arriving an hour late with him not there, he arrives to greet them within moments, even though Janek can’t contact him. Before the therapy can start, Henryk presents a “magic box,” which only has a common ballpoint pen inside for them to sign waivers for their treatment, and then to store their cell phones, even though they can’t get a signal. His laid back chuckle instantly makes the hairs on the back of your head stand up, red flags rising in a chorus. This guy just has to be shady with some ulterior motive, but what is it? And how long can he keep up a charade of detachment?
A second couple joins the proceedings as they go along. Janek first meets Salome (Paulina Komenda) seemingly by accident, as he passes by her bathing in the lake while on a stroll. Her husband Filip (Piotr Choma) arrives later with a complete “party animal” persona. The pair are actors, meant to serve as avatars for the issues in Marzena and Janek’s own lives, but again, there are hints of something more odd, if not outright sinister.
The Rashomon vibes hit their apex during an exercise where Salome and Filip act out a scenario that led to a fight between Marzena and Janek, one where he was alone in a bar while she was in their vacation hotel room feeling sick. Salome hits on him, and he responds politely, but takes no aggressive or untoward actions, but the fact that he engaged at all is enough for everyone to turn on him to a certain degree. Marzena is convinced he cheated on her, Filip thinks Janek is a pig, Salome wonders why he didn’t refuse her advances instantly. At the same time, while Janek insists upon his innocence, the others also tell Marzena that she was too harsh on him and likely overreacted.
The point is that any objective observer could have interpreted that scene in any number of ways, and one has to wonder what purpose it serves as far as repairing Marzena and Janek’s relationship. Is Janek lying? Is Marzena seeing something that isn’t there? Are they both being gaslit? It’s impossible to say. There’s a similar bit of therapy earlier, where Henryk has Janek and Marzena wear boxing gloves and literally spar with one another while they air their grievances. The moment Janek lands even one hit, however, the exercise is stopped and Marzena recoils as if she’s been truly injured, despite the fact that she hit him dozens of times and clever camera work makes it unclear where and how hard Janek hit back. The confusion is only compounded by the fact that Henryk was egging him on to strike his wife before chastising him for doing exactly that. So is Janek potentially abusive? Was this entrapment? Did Marzena want to lay a guilt trip on him? We cannot know.
Dylewski seems to get an almost giddy joy out of leaving things open to interpretation, at least until the final act, which spirals into some territory I don’t think anyone truly expects. Part of that is because we’ve been faked out so many times before the shoe drops that it almost doesn’t seem believable. The audience is just as susceptible to the gaslighting as the characters themselves, and that’s a major point to Dylewski and Celmer’s credit.
If there’s a flaw to be had here, it’s that the film is too quick and neat for its own good. Clocking in at a scant 58 minutes, the interpersonal drama, as well as the mystery and suspense surrounding Henryk’s therapy raises a lot more questions than answers, particularly when it comes to how much he actually knows about Marzena and Janek before the session starts, what really are the issues between them (in a “show me, don’t tell me” sort of way), and how willing a participant everyone is to this game.
The title of the film itself is a metaphor for the pernicious nature of dishonesty, and I wish there was time for a greater exploration of that theme beyond just a brief exchange between Marzena and Henryk where we find out he can tell when people are lying. Given the fact that personal perspective plays a huge role in this story, I would have loved to see that either confirmed or challenged by visual evidence. Rarely is it the case that I think a film has too little exposition, but this heady, intriguing look at relationships, gender roles, and commitment honestly begs to be fleshed out for another 30-45 minutes.
As it is, the movie is fine, if somewhat rushed, though the ultimate resolution leaves a lot to be desired. There’s something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more, and Rotten Ears certainly accomplishes that. The characters are well-developed, and despite some narrative juggling, things don’t get too confusing. It’s definitely worth your time. I just wish we were spending more time.