Rising helmer Malgoska Szumowska (“Stranger”) continues to mine semiautobiographical material with “33 Scenes From Life,” but the results develop across emotional arcs in less than satisfactory ways. Focusing on a woman whose life crumbles when her mother is hospitalized, the pic impresses on several levels, but tends to treat well-established absurdist elements as if they’re new discoveries, and is at times overly voyeuristic. Still, partisans — including the Locarno jury, which awarded it their Special Jury Prize — will guarantee fest play along with possible Euro arthouse exposure.
Szumowska herself experienced something similar to her protag’s grief when both her parents died within a year, but she’s quick to establish the differences between this fictional family and her own. Julia (German star Julia Jentsch) comes from a close-knit family of intellectuals that includes film-director father Jurek (Andrzej Hudziak) and novelist mother Barbara (Malgorzata Hajewska). Szumowska expertly captures the sense of ease and underlying tension that accompany family gatherings.
Julia’s career as an artist is on the rise, and she’s outwardly happy with composer hubby Piotr (Maciej Stuhr), though he’s often away. When Mom is diagnosed with cancer (a theme also explored, presciently, in the helmer’s debut, “Happy Man”), the entire family comes together, including marginalized sister Kaska (Isa Kuna), but as Barbara sinks into dementia, everyone falls apart. Scenes capturing the hospital-bedside awkwardness of loved ones are well played, as are the moments of jocularity within such a stressful environment.
Julia’s attempts at integrating the cancer into her art fall flat, and Piotr’s absence forms a vacuum (but never gets its proper due onscreen). A clumsy, drunken pass at family friend and fellow artist Adrian (Danish thesp Peter Gantzler, “Italian for Beginners”) goes nowhere; meanwhile, her dad Jurek also needs hospitalization after turning to the bottle in spectacular fashion.
As her world collapses around her, Julia acts out in increasingly evident ways, including sudden outbursts of laughter. Anyone who’s been through such trauma won’t be nearly as surprised by this as Szumowska appears to be, though she throws in an overt father fixation to deepen the characterization. The helmer also indulges in extended closeup scenes of Barbara dying.
While working these scenes out on film undoubtedly helped Szumowska through a shattering period, it’s purely a matter of life experience whether they’ll also prove affecting to an audience. Unquestionably, the early scenes work best, with their implicit understanding of the coddling effects of being a favored child in a sharp-witted family.
Expert dubbing means viewers will barely notice that Jentsch and Gantzler aren’t speaking Polish. Jentsch adds to her growing reputation as an actress of depth, with genuine star presence. Displaying a sensual, feral quality, she’s also a generous performer, quietly subsuming herself into the strong ensemble.
Szumowska’s regular d.p. Michal Englert is a master of smooth, sophisticated lensing: Early, optimistic scenes are shot with a warm, golden light, in distinct contrast to the penumbral interiors of the hospital. Piotr’s melodic yet dissonant compositions are nicely incorporated into the soundtrack.