LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: SPOOR

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: SPOOR – the latest feature from Agnieszka Holland – screened at Ciné Lumière last night (07 OCT). Here’s our writeup.

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: SPOOR screened at Ciné Lumière (07 OCT).
LFF17: SPOOR screened at Ciné Lumière (07 OCT).

SPOOR (2017, Poland / Germany / Czech Republic / Sweden / Slovakia, 128min)

Adapted from Olga Tokarczuk’s novel, Agnieszka Holland’s film SPOOR (POKOT in Polish) is a case of FARGO shot through with the animated environmentalism of PRINCESS MONONOKE. There are murders in the snow and their gory aftermath. There’s a natural world under violent human threat. And there are – unusually for this most earnest of filmmakers – belly laughs.

One morning, animal lover Janina Duszejko (“Never call me Janina”) discovers that her two dogs are missing and so ensues a raging battle between her and the increasingly reckless huntsmen of a nearby town. With the male-dominated authorities implicated in the massacres, ever independent Duszejko must forge allies with others to fight for the truth about her beloved dogs and protect all creatures.

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: SPOOR screened at Ciné Lumière (07 OCT).
LFF17: SPOOR screened at Ciné Lumière (07 OCT).

“You can’t treat animals like people”

From the opening sombre shots of mist rising from fields and woodland, this is a thriller. Antoni Lazarkiewicz’s percussive score drives discovery of yet more bodies and leads to frantic escapes and explosions. But it is also a character study exploring the natural world and our position within it. The entire film is anchored by a luminous central performance from veteran TV actor Agnieszka Mandat. Radiantly human, she roars with despair one minute and fuels the lightness of love and laughter the next. Absurd scenes include leading a pack of school children on a nocturnal torch-lit hunt for her missing ‘daughters’. A visit to a minimalist’s apartment is full of gently surreal comedy.

We spend so much time with her that Duszejko’s arguments – however peculiar – become our logic, making it impossible to buck her passion for the countryside and her horror at how it is being systematically defiled. Her prophecy that nature’s vengeance will be terrible for the sins humans have wreaked upon it comes not from a romanticised notion of benign guardianship, but from recognition that we too sniff and snuffle as animals of this shared realm.

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: SPOOR screened at Ciné Lumière (07 OCT).
LFF17: SPOOR screened at Ciné Lumière (07 OCT).

“You didn’t start this war”

Holland has never shied away from ferocious social commentary, tackling the essential topics of European history before forging an exceptional television career with episodes of THE WIRE, TREME and HOUSE OF CARDS amongst others. Here again she confronts authority with scenes about corruption in Poland’s town halls whilst hurling clods of earth at bigger issues – murder, cannibalism, Holocaust and genocide – humanity’s worst atrocities writ large. There is only an oblique final fade from view to suggest something morally ambivalent. An avenging angel? All things pass? It’s beautifully unclear.

SPOOR’s story-telling leaps and falters, becoming unpredictable and arbitrary like the seasonal title cards that let us know when we should start killing each other (sorry, the animals…). There’s so much on offer that things become overcrowded. Two younger characters in particular struggle for their place, as does the rotating cast of police officers and high officials. It’s a film for the older generation, Duszejko and her suitors perfectly – if oddly – formed creatures of the woodland.

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: SPOOR screened at Ciné Lumière (07 OCT).
LFF17: SPOOR screened at Ciné Lumière (07 OCT).

Above all, this is joyous image making. Holland works with collaborating director Kasia Adamik and cinematographers Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski to create glorious images of Duszejko’s realm. There’s a moment when she embraces the dawn that is simply breathtaking. Elsewhere, swooping overhead cameras take us into her war and animals make startling appearances. Real forest creatures pay silent witness whilst mystical ur-animals appear in the form of masks and toys.

Holland’s stories can sometimes feel beyond reach as if, like a medium at an unruly seance, she can barely contain their competing voices. The deep joy of her best work is that she uses several filmic languages at once. It’s adventurous, open to life’s surreal moments and unafraid of running the risk of ripping itself apart. In SPOOR (meaning the track or scent of an animal), she has possibly sown too many seeds – Mandat’s performance, the woodland environment, the score and the script all command attention – but what a wondrous harvest.

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Featured images: SPOOR (2017).

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: SPOOR screened at Ciné Lumière (07 OCT).

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