Based upon Piotr Rowicki’s stage play Clinging, Demon is Polish director Marcin Wrona’s third and, sadly, final film (he took his own life in 2015). A deeply moody allegory, it unravels as an exploration of the national guilt stemming from Poland’s direct and indirect complicity with crimes committed against its Jewish citizens during the Holocaust. It tells of Piotr (Itay Tiran), a young groom who, in the midst of his wedding celebrations, is possessed by the unquiet spirit of a young Jewish woman, and the attempts of his new in-laws to conceal and deny this supernatural intrusion. The possession occurs after the discovery of a skeleton buried in the land beside the house where the wedding is taking place, and the troubled past literally returns to haunt the present. The idea of a groom possessed by a restless spirit on his wedding day has its roots in antiquated Jewish folk tales about the dybbuk — a malicious soul that clings to and possesses the living in order to complete what death interrupted. These tales also informed the premise of the early Polish horror-fantasy The Dybbuk (1937), in which a wedding is interrupted when a jealous guest summons the titular demon.
The central theme of the past haunting the present, and the characters’ refusal to acknowledge it and deal with it, is particularly pertinent given a highly controversial bill passed earlier this year by Poland’s Senate. Seen by many as an attempt to rewrite history and distort facts, the bill essentially outlaws blaming Poland for crimes and atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The reaction of various characters to the discovery of the skeleton, and the subsequent possession of Piotr, can be seen as a reflection of Poland’s guilt, and attempts to deny its painful past. One character dismisses the discovery, noting ‘the whole country is built on corpses’, while the bride’s middle-class parents go to increasingly absurd lengths to deny there’s anything wrong with the possessed groom, whom they’ve hidden in the basement. At one stage the father of the bride even claims that a wedding never took place and that the guests, whom he plies with vodka in an attempt to prevent them from seeing the groom in his possessed state, are suffering from a ‘collective hallucination’.
Throughout are observations of the customs and traditions surrounding marriage ceremonies, the anxiety experienced by the couple about to tie the knot, and the idea that marriage fundamentally changes people. This sinister idea becomes quite literal as Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) slowly notices the changes in Piotr. While this aspect of the film is never fully explored, it deftly echoes old European folk stories which tell of individuals who, after the wedding, discover their new spouses are actually daemons, selkies, werewolves or ghouls in human form. The contrast of the frenzied debauchery of the guests with the formality of the occasion provides darkly absurd humour, and while the narrative thrust eventually stalls, Demon remains engaging thanks to Tiran’s startling performance and the deeply unsettling score and cinematography, which bolster the portentous atmosphere of dread.
28 May 2018