Modern, bourgeois life is stressful, but a lot of the stress is of our own petty devising, according to Polish first-time feature director Paweł Maślona’s energetic, well-crafted, but ultimately rather empty “Panic Attack.” A Warsaw-set ensemble comedy in which six separate storylines showcase a selection of Varsovians brought to near nervous collapse trying to maintain self-serving deceptions, it should play well at home and to local/regional audiences eager for depictions of contemporary life in Eastern Europe that are less dour than those usually afforded by the festival circuit. But while the film is an attractive calling-card for Maślona, its proudly commercial sensibilities make “Panic Attack” an atypical choice in the Karlovy Vary competition lineup, and its glibness may leave international art-house viewers feeling shortchanged.
Comparisons with Damián Szifron’s similarly antic and tragicomic “Wild Tales” are inevitable, but Maślona’s movie is in some ways the more ambitious. While the individual strands never quite achieve the extra ironic twist of the knife that Szifron’s “Tales” all exhibited, here co-writers Maślona, Aleksandra Pisula, and Bartłomiej Kotschedoff work hard to create connections between six stories of breakdown, neurosis and anxiety-inducing deceit. But the effort shows, and what the film gains in big-picture neatness, it loses in characterization. As individually amusing as the scenarios can be, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the cast here are just pawns being bloodlessly shuffled around the board to serve this larger strategy, rather than living, breathing (often hyperventilating) real people.
Its blackheartedness is established from the outset, in a prologue in which nerdy Witek (Daniel Guzdek) records a podcast (or perhaps a radio segment) about astronomy, then promptly shoots himself in the head. The opening titles, with gleeful tastelessness, unspool against the smear of blood and brain matter left on the wall behind. Witek’s suicide is only one of two onscreen deaths, and there’ll also be a childbirth, an interrupted wedding, a deeply awkward date, a fistfight, some internet sex work, a dinner party, kids smoking their first joint, an online gaming addiction and a disastrous airplane flight, so no one can say Maślona hasn’t covered off the majority of current middle-class life scenarios.
But as in all anthology-style films, not all the vignettes are equally engaging, and in some the contrivances really show. The airplane segment is perhaps the most successful — largely due to the brief but excellent performance from Danish actor Nicolas Bro as the freely perspiring, willfully chatty, irritatingly good-natured seatmate from hell. Less successful is the storyline involving online sex worker Kamila (Aleksandra Pisula) who is so anxious to keep her job from her friends that she fabricates a trip to South America: Aside from everything else, why do her friends suddenly flock to her side to comfort her through the trauma of an ex’s death, when he was apparently only her “boyfriend” for a couple of months in school, and whom she hasn’t seen (or, clearly, thought about) in years? Elsewhere, heavily pregnant bride Wiktoria (Julia Wyszynska) spends most of her wedding reception not knowing where the groom is; avid gamer Milosz (Bartlomiej Kotschedoff) is reduced to talking his put-upon Mom through an attempt to save his online empire from an anonymous attack; and highly-strung Monika (Magdalena Poplawska) goes on a date with taciturn ex-lover Dawid (Grzegorz Damiecki) that does not at all go as she hoped.
DP Cezary Stolecki’s glossy images showcase contemporary Poland with a brash, moneyed sheen. The electro-score from composer Jimek is nicely propulsive and best of all, Agnieszka Glińska’s editing is crisp in its accelerating, tachycardiac rhythm, and often finds quick beats of congruence to make the transitions between storylines less jarring.
Still, while the bright, attractive craft keeps things moving a brisk pace, it can’t conceal the film’s hollow core: none of the stories amounts to much beyond a pencil-sketch morality play in which selfish decisions and petty cruelties come home to roost on their perpetrators. Even the playful, tricksy approach to chronology, and the various relationships between the characters, once understood, turn out to be more circumstantial than enlightening — particularly in the case of one supporting character who turns up in three of the storylines without any real explanation for the coincidence. As a filmmaking exercise, then, “Panic Attack” has a lot to recommend it, but once you take away the flash and dazzle, and unkink its intricately overdetermined plotline, in the words of one of its perplexed, unfortunate characters, “there’s nothing left.”