Jan Jakub Kolski’s “Away From the Window” is an old-fashioned weeper done up in a chic, postmodern style with all the hand-wringing buried beneath a stony, placid facade. The characters always seem on the verge of hysterical outbursts, but they never explode, and the film becomes a microcosmic study of a certain kind of human suffering under fascism. It’s heavily symbolic: A child’s hand-painted crib is nearly fetishized; actors stare longingly at each other across vast, quiet spaces, and visually enhanced dream sequences look like oil paintings come to life. This austere, rigorous affair isn’t always worth the trouble, and at times seems almost defiantly uncommercial. But pic still isn’t nearly as intimidating as its fest reputation suggests.
Yarn is set in a small Polish town under the German occupation. Barbara (Dorota Landowska) and Jan (Bartosz Opania) are a childless couple of meager means, though Jan’s work as a sign painter has ingratiated them with the collaborating town authorities, including the local constable, Jodla (Krzystof Pieczynski), who has more than a friendly interest in Barbara. Semi-fragmentary narrative approach makes the action appears to proceed linearly, with major plot developments intruding with little or no setup.
When Barbara and Jan take in Jewish refugee Regina (Dominika Ostalowska) and hide her in a large dressing bureau, we have no idea from whence she has come. As if in a WWII-set “Mulholland Drive,” there’s the suggestion that Regina and Jan may have been having an affair — certainly, they are about to embark on one — but specifics are left ambiguous.
Predictably, Regina becomes pregnant with Jan’s child, causing a schism within Barbara: Desperate for a child herself, she creates an elaborate disguise designed to make it appear as though she herself is with child.
Barbara parades through town in full costume, exclaiming that she can feel her baby kicking. These are among the most extraordinary scenes in Kolski’s film, made palatable rather than unintentionally parodistic by Landowska, who physically resembles Diane Venora and has some of her full-bodied intensity. Ostalowska, however, is not so lucky, with almost no dialogue and little to do aside from constantly climbing into and disembarking from her hiding place.
Kolski has been cited as the director responsible for introducing the concept of “magic realism” to Polish cinema, but there’s little evidence of that here. As pic progresses, the narrative becomes more straightforward, and events unfurl in a deliberate, solemn manner. Regina gives birth; Barbara continues her charade; Jan offers little objection; and Jodla continues his pursuit, of both Barbara and the truth. It’s a tawdry set of circumstances that climaxes with both a murder and a disappearance.
“Away From the Window” never becomes what might have made it really interesting — namely, a comment on the melodramatic form it so rigorously, yet coolly embodies. Some utterly disposable, laughably arty dialogue — “What is the color of yearning?” for example — nearly sink it single-handedly. All the same, Kolski’s self-consciously dark, melancholy spaces do turn out to be a surprisingly compelling place from which to tell a story. Tech contributions are uniformly strong.