A former kebab-shop employee and an out-of-work horoscope writer declare themselves marketing experts and are hired to help a carpet emporium without customers in the droll shaggy-dog story “Kebab & Horoscope.” This colorfully stylized debut feature from Polish helmer Grzegorz Jaroszuk, known for his prize-winning shorts including “Frozen Stories,” displays a distinctive brand of eccentric humanism that draws inspiration from the works of Aki Kaurismaki, Roy Andersson and Petr Zelenka, among others. Even though the slender material occasionally feels padded, its delightful moments of inspired silliness will make it a breath of fresh air for festival programmers.
Although the film is jovial on the surface, its underlying theme is about lonely, awkward people looking for love in an irrational world. Theirs is a universe of bemusement, where reality often falls disappointingly short of fantasy.
A pre-credits meet-cute at a kebab shop epitomizes the film’s absurdist tone and offbeat style. Following the advice of a horoscope column in the magazine Animal Science, kitchen worker Kebab (Bartlomiej Topa) decides to quit his job. The only other patron in the place is a young man who turns out to be the author of the column himself, Horoscope (Piotr Zurawski).
When the two men next appear, they’re now a duo, spouting semi-logical absurdities to workers at the aforementioned carpet shop under the rubric of marketing. As the employees participate in peculiar exercises designed to focus the efficiency and energy of the business, the dynamics of the group shift in subtle and comical ways, with surprising feuds and alliances emerging and evaporating.
As we observe some of the employees outside the context of the workplace, a web of unexpected connections comes into view. One narrative strand focuses on the young salesgirl, referred to in the credits as the Intern (Justyna Wasilewska, who at some angles resembles Kaurismaki’s iconic actress Kati Outinen). Her peaceful, albeit solitary, routine is upset when her histrionic, widowed mother (Dorota Kolak), invades her apartment and decides to remain until she can locate her childhood love (Marek Kalita).
The Intern, whose one surprising sales transaction results in the pic’s best bit of visual humor, initially finds herself supportive of the tracksuit-clad Boss (Andrzej Zielinski), who is always carrying a piece of sports equipment. But her brief dalliance with the older man is replaced by an alliance with the shop’s electrician (Tomasz Schuchardt), who turns out to be married to the Boss’ soccer-obsessed daughter (Anna Haba), whose choice of nighttime reading elicits a guffaw.
The Boss’ former squeeze, the straight-laced-looking cashier (Barbara Kurzaj), declares unconditional support for Kebab & Horoscope’s methods in the office. Meanwhile, at home, she dresses like a hippie and hosts a suicidal Japanese man (Yasuhiro Igarashi). By contrast, the pop-eyed, elderly office cleaner (Janusz Michalowski) plaintively questions the point of the marketing exercises.
Jaroszuk alternates closeups with wide shots, constructing a claustrophobic, parallel world that is both particularized and abstract. Likewise, one gets a sense of the humanity of the various characters, even though they, too, are abstractions, referred to in the credits by their functions or characteristics rather than by name. Although reliant on minimal expression and rather doleful gazes, the stylized acting still manages to effectively communicate emotion.
Attractive lensing by the helmer’s Lodz film-school classmate, Norwegian lenser John Magnus Borge, crafts a look more redolent of Scandinavian films than of Polish ones. Other craft credits are polished.