As beautiful a portrait of not much at all as one could hope to find, this Sundance prize-winner captures the listlessness of Poland's youth.
Cast as an avatar for a nation of disaffected Polish twentysomethings, Krzysztof Bagiński has an amazing face. From some angles, it projects a vulnerable kind of curiosity, almost childlike as questioning eyes peer out from deep hollow sockets. Head-on, he could be Michelangelo’s David, with his broad cheeks and full lips, a question mark knit in the crease between his eyebrows. In profile, he suddenly takes on an almost Neanderthal appearance, as his heavy forehead pushes down on that sharp wedge of a nose.
Over the course of nearly two hours — compressed down from roughly a year in the life of its characters — “All These Sleepless Nights” gives us plenty of time to ponder Bagiński’s head from every angle, and to a lesser degree, the thoughts flickering inside it. Featuring a trio of real people more or less playing themselves, Michał Marczak’s quasi-documentary is breathtakingly beautiful at times, filmed in a style more reminiscent of recent Terrence Malick movies than anything reality-based as it floats at arm’s length behind Kris, best friend Michal (Michał Huszcza), and the girl they both covet, Eva (Eva Lebuef).
Theirs is not quite a love triangle, though a brief fling between Kris and Eva (who is Michal’s ex-girlfriend) creates a tension between the two men that’s as close to a plot as the movie has to offer. Otherwise, this intermittently hypnotic paean to youth amounts to a loose catalog of how these three millennials spend the hazy hours between twilight and dawn when security guards, vampires, and party animals do their thing — which consists mostly of dancing, drugs, clumsy attempts at seduction, and various spontaneous acts of silliness (picking fights, playing chicken with oncoming trains).
Kris and company belong to a generation determined to avoid boredom at all costs, and yet, they are themselves profoundly boring. At least Marczak has chosen characters who are easy on the eyes (though give them a decade, and those handsome faces will likely look as if they’ve been working in the coal mines for 40 years), which buys a fair amount of goodwill as they spout reams of existential angst, sounding vaguely like the melancholy characters of “Oslo, August 31st.”
Here, for virtually the first time in Polish history, is a group of twentysomethings allowed to be idle — old enough to be out from under their parents’ supervision, yet not so much that they’re obliged to work for a living. After the fall of Communism in 1989, the country’s curiosity for all things Western drove a seemingly insatiable appetite for imported pop culture. Now, the novelty is gone, and the young people seem as disaffected and listless as they might in any capitalist country. Like good little consumers, they are keenly aware of what they lack, and they proceed in selfish pursuit of their own moment-to-moment amusement (ours is secondary), seeking some abstract idea of connection based on casual sex.
Even in crowds, the characters complain of being alone. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Kris walks down the middle of the street, away from the camera, as drivers stop their cars and get out to gawp at some unseen spectacle happening behind him (and us). He’s oblivious to whatever everyone’s looking at, just as they, for the most part, are oblivious to him. In another, Kris and a young woman he’s met at a party walk with eyes closed through the early morning. He bumps into a pole, and she nearly gets hit by a bus. This could be a metaphor for something, or else just another example of kids being carefree and reckless. You decide.
“All These Sleepless Nights” world premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where Marczak won the directing prize in the World Cinema Documentary competition, and it has since been embraced as nonfiction in festivals around the world. But Marczak would be the first to admit that he’s actively manipulating the situations at hand, and there’s not a single moment in the entire film in which the characters don’t seem to be performing for the camera. Does that make it dishonest? Not necessarily. In fact, there are some scenes (including one in which the camera assumes Kris’ POV as Eva seductively dances for his benefit) that feel completely genuine, even if entirely staged.
This is Warsaw, circa 2015, as seen through its parks, apartments, public transportation, and pop-up clubs. It’s a depressing place, but somehow doesn’t feel that bleak, thanks to Marczak’s eye (he splits DP duties with Maciej Twardowski) and a sublime soundtrack of trance-like electronic music, which make things look and sound amazing, even when nothing much of consequence is happening on screen. Taken as a whole, “All These Sleepless Nights” presents a restless, some-might-say-dynamic portrait of characters who seem to be going absolutely nowhere.