“Whenever you do something new, you learn something about yourself,” says the protagonist of Polish lenser-turned-helmer Bartek Prokopowicz’s gutsy debut feature, “Chemo,” promising viewers a world of self-discovery in the process: No one’s ever seen a terminal-disease meller quite like this one, after all. Careering recklessly in form and tone from magical-realist romantic comedy to abrasive domestic drama to four-handkerchief weeper, this story of a young couple trying to start a family in the shadow of a cancer diagnosis inevitably falters in a couple of its guises, but lands the crucial emotional body blow thanks to its consistent intensity of feeling — no surprise, given the pic is inspired by Prokopowicz’s late wife’s own battle with the Big C. Idiosyncratic but not uncommercial, this HBO Europe co-production could travel considerably within the Continent.
While “Chemo” isn’t a direct memoir, Katarzyna Sarnowska’s script draws heavily from the experience of Prokopowicz and his wife, Magdalena, who passed away in 2012 — one year after the premiere of an hour-long 2011 documentary, “Magda, Love and Cancer,” about her life with the disease. Like her real-life counterpart, the pic’s tellingly named heroine, Lena (Agnieszka Zulewska), also faces the painful choice of whether or not to continue with a pregnancy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. The friction between medical counsel and personal conviction drives much of a narrative in which characters’ decisions are far less easy to anticipate than their unavoidably heartbreaking outcome. “Follow your heart” may be a philosophy rendered largely meaningless by a particular brand of triumph-over-adversity storytelling; here, it carries a drastic burden of consequence.
Before we get to such tough questions, however, “Chemo” initially seems to be heading in another direction entirely. As Prokopowicz stages a kooky meet-cute between Lena and depressed fashion photographer Benek (Tomasz Schuchardt) that recalls nothing so much as “A Life Less Ordinary”-era Danny Boyle in its frenzied stylization — comicbook car chases, bass-kick scoring, a sudden vision of indoor thundershowers — it’s not immediately clear what dimension the pic is even set in. Auds who can bear with giddy levels of upfront quirk will soon come to understand these onscreen affectations as manifestations of the pair’s alternately compatible and combustible varieties of mania. Death-fixated Benek has already marked a calendar date for his suicide when he meets Lena, who — though we aren’t made party to her diagnosis until later — has matters of mortality on her mind as well.
As Lena and Benek fall for each other, they regain their hunger for life; having previously refused treatment on the rationale that “suffering requires more courage than dying,” Lena resolves to fight her illness using every resource available. (In this most openly sentimental stretch of the film, Prokopowicz isn’t shy of symbolism as obvious as light pouring in through a previously obscured window, though the accompanying appearance of Hozier’s already over-applied hit “Take Me to Church” on the eclectic, propulsive soundtrack is hardly necessary). Lena’s plans for a chemotherapy-assisted recovery are thrown for a loop, however, when she discovers she’s expecting her first child. Ignoring a string of doctors who urge her to abort the baby, Lena soldiers on with pregnancy and chemo simultaneously. The long-term outcome of her choice unfolds after a surprising chronological leap that takes the pic into more agitated, abstracted modes of realism, with the couple’s turbulent relationship facing its own struggle for survival.
Viewers will either accept “Chemo’s” frequent, inelegant stylistic breaks as rhythmically reflective of the characters’ addled mood swings, or they won’t. Whether they do or not is likely to determine the degree to which they indulge the helmer his more lumpily conceived imagery, or such precious devices as having the characters communicate via in-house graffiti. Yet the actors’ emotional connection to the material is unwavering: Zulewska spikily conveys the spiritual itches and impetuosities that come with a medical death sentence, refusing to dully ennoble Lena’s suffering, while Schuchardt is most affecting as a besotted, bewildered man-child, often bottling his torment to accommodate that of his beloved.
The glistening slickness of the tech credits is counter-intuitive but ultimately apt, with d.p. Jeremiasz Prokopowicz (the director’s brother) often casting a stainless, musicvideo sheen over proceedings — the world as its pained protagonists would like it to be, and fancifully pretend it is from time to time. Recurring animated passages by Nadia Micault, visualizing Lena’s cancer from the inside out, don’t merely add visual interest but also inventively express the character’s most panicked imaginings of her body under siege.