The chilly landscape of Tomasz Wasilewski’s third feature pervades the characters as well as the environment, in stark contradiction to the intensity of emotion felt by the four leads. Set in 1990, just as the Soviet bloc is crumbling, “United States of Love” is an unevenly balanced and largely unforgiving look at four unhappy women, each with her own gnawing obsessions. Designed on one level to conjure the effects of a repressive society on women with few choices available, “Love” feels frigid even though Wasilewski (“Floating Skyscrapers”) likely wants to extend sympathy to their situations. Strikingly lensed by ace Romanian d.p. Oleg Mutu, this distancing drama will generate formal admiration but is unlikely to create waves notwithstanding brisk Berlinale sales.
The setting is a nondescript town of soulless apartment blocks, the kind familiar to all viewers of East European cinema with their isolating exteriors, dirt-field surroundings, and corridors seemingly created to allow neighbors to spy on one another. The opening shot at a dinner party is pure New Romanian Cinema, with Mutu’s camera acting like a guest at the table in a redesign of his unsettling dinner setup for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Here the main characters are introduced, though Wasilewski then largely separates the stories with only Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz) acting more or less as a bridge.
Hard-faced Agata (Julia Kijowska) is married to Jacek (Lukasz Simla). Sex has a passionate fury, yet when it’s over she rolls away and rejects his touch. The reason is she’s developed an obsessive, one-sided love for her priest, which takes complete hold of her mind and leads her to act irrationally.
Immaculately turned-out school principal Iza (Magdalena Cielecka, “Katyn”) has had a six-year affair with doctor Karol (Andrzej Chyra), but when his wife dies, he’s no longer interested in his mistress. Iza’s natural self-control is severely tested as she tries to hold on to her increasingly distant lover, finally resorting to an act of foolish desperation.
When schoolteacher Renata (Dorota Kolak) is forced to retire, her life suddenly feels directionless. Lonely, secretive and living with a host of songbirds she periodically lets out of their cages, Renata now has time to engage in her fixation on neighbor Marzena, who is Iza’s sister and a former beauty queen-turned-aerobics instructor feeling the pangs of separation from her husband, who’s earning a living in West Germany.
No one in these “United States” lives the life she imagined for herself, and disappointment spawns a host of untenable feelings they can’t control. Agata and Iza are engulfed in bitter love, the former for a man she can never possess, the latter for a man she can no longer hold. For both, the unattainability of this love (though is it really love? How can love be defined?) renders everything acrid, sharpening their frustration and making them behave in destructive ways. In Iza’s case, the destructive urge extends beyond herself and her lover: Wasilewski pushes his character to a horrifying edge, yet shoots the disturbing scene from a coldly calculated distance and then jumps slightly back in time to avoid any ramifications. The device feels something of a cheat, and leaves a sense of callousness that’s surely not intended.
Balancing the four stories is also a problem, with Agata getting short shrift; she’s practically forgotten in the wake of the stronger plotlines involving Iza and especially Renata. The film extends its greatest sympathy to the older teacher, although her obsession with Marzena is unexplained (deliberately so: Is anyone else’s obsession ever really understandable?). Not that Renata is a likable figure: She spies, she deceives, and yet there’s the sensation that such behavior is merely the natural outcome of years of state repression.
Wasilewski includes one moment of concentrated, quiet emotion, the most powerful scene in the film: Marzena teaches a waltz in dance class, and with each turn, Renata seems to become more weighed down with despair. Perhaps it’s just an impression, but it’s as if even her hair becomes flatter as her face droops and her eyes lose any life they had. What is it Renata loved, and how does it fit into these United States? Or as the oldest of the group, and therefore the woman most programmed by the communist machine, is love only possible in a corrupted form?
All four actresses deliver strong performances: Kijowska and Cieleck have a controlled, brittle intensity, while Kolak’s projection of loneliness is even more overwhelming, as if unsorted emotions have suddenly risen to the surface and Renata doesn’t know how to decipher them. Marzena may be the most pathetic figure of all, perhaps because her youth, beauty and energy offered so much promise: Nieradkiewicz holds the character together to the truly bitter end.
Mutu’s coolly watchful camera sticks close to its subjects, furthering the desired sense of suffocation, but Wasilewski indulges in far too many back-of-the-head shots that say more about the hairdresser than character or mood. Muted colors are in keeping with the chill, often drained to a bone white and lit as if by fluorescent bulbs: It’s a particularly harsh light for nude scenes that expose every line and sag. The evocation of the period is well done, down to the amount of cigarettes consumed.