Three characters with fundamentally different perspectives on loss converge in Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska’s “Body,” whose peculiar sense of humor and competing points of view make for an almost cubist fruitcake comedy. Alternating among a widowed coroner desensitized to the corpses he sees on a daily basis, his ever-dwindling anorexic daughter, and the family physical therapist, who believes she can communicate with the dead, this odd Berlin offering from the director of Teddy-winning “In the Name of” doesn’t seem to take any of its angles all that seriously, offering wry thematic observations for an extremely limited festival crowd.
Instead of constructing an elegant narrative around her three vantages, Szumowska whips up a semi-overlapping series of scenes involving this central trio. At work, the weary undertaker (Janusz Gajos) hardly pays the dead bodies any mind, to the extent that in an early crime-scene call, he doesn’t even bother to check whether a presumed suicide victim is actually dead. (He isn’t, standing up and shuffling away after the authorities cut him down from a tree.)
At home, the coroner’s daughter Olga (Justyna Suwala) binges on junk food, then vomits it up shortly after, making little effort to hide the evidence. Elaborate gagging noises are played for laughs, until the night her father comes home to find her passed out beside the toilet. At the clinic, Olga meets Anna (Maja Ostaszewska), a counselor with slightly unorthodox methods who’s struggling to make sense of her “gift,” by which she hears the voices of the recently deceased. The day after a 10-year-old plunges from the roof of her apartment building, Anna spots him in the elevator.
Each of these people proves absurd in their own way. It hardly seems normal that the coroner’s appetite is undiminished by such grisly sights as a human fetus left abandoned and dismembered in a train-station lavatory, and yet, he wolfs down a hearty bowl of soup after visiting the crime scene. By contrast, Olga refuses to eat, but isn’t allowed to leave the clinic’s lunchroom until ingesting a blended bowl of disgusting ingredients.
The Anna character serves as something of a wild card where these opposing points of view are concerned, connected by the fact that the man’s dead wife — or Olga’s dead mother, depending on whose p.o.v. she’s taking — might very well be kicking around their flat in some lingering form. Doors open of their own accord, and the stereo flares to life without explanation. The late woman’s absence could be the thing keeping this father-daughter pair from connecting, although it’s hardly enough to build a film around.
Though Szumowska has constructed “Body” in such a way that domestic audiences should be reasonably amused, there’s potentially an added value for those who catch it on the festival circuit. As an anthropological comment on present-day Poland, the film depicts a country with a conflicted sense of self, torn between modern conveniences and a certain Old World mentality (neither the bureaucracy nor the plumbing seems to work correctly). Religion has failed the country, and yet Anna seeks meaning in the occult.
It could be stretching things to suggest that the anorexia Szumowska observes traumatizing a wave of young women — girls insecure about their figures, physically repulsed by the generation that has come before — reaches deeper into the national psyche. The film doesn’t purport to have the answers, although it’s somewhat disorienting to reflect on what Szumowska considers amusing. In attempting to make us think, she mostly just invites us to chuckle.