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The Current Debate: A Complicated Past in “Demon”

Tracing the shadow of history in Marcin Wrona’s final film.
Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona’s Demon, one of last year’s TIFF Vanguard selections, started quietly making its way into theaters just before this year’s edition of the festival, and has drawn a number of warm reviews in the last month. The scary-sounding title may have put off otherwise likely viewers, but it really shouldn’t: as Manohla Dargis puts it, Demon is “ready-made for the art house even if its mystical flourishes — an otherworldly claw, an undead bride — are the sort of woo-woo pleasures more often scared up in genre stories.” Michael Nordine has more at the Village Voice:
Demon, while not straight horror, has one foot in the genre (the other, of course, is in the grave). It opens on an enigmatic river-crossing sequence, the body that gets dragged from the water serving as a harbinger of what Wrona has in store. His tale concerns a groom-to-be who, while digging outside his and his fiancée's new fixer-upper of a home, uncovers skeletal remains — and keeps the secret to himself. This is mythically verboten, it would seem, as by the time Piotr (Itay Tiran) lets anyone in on his discovery the damage is already done: His body is now home to Hana, a Jew whose mysterious death during the height of World War II has entered the realm of local legend.
The critical consensus, possibly under the influence of arthouse-horror genre expectations, has been mostly in line with Ela Bittencourt’s take in Film Comment—that aside from welcome folk and cultural elements, allusions to history don’t quite pay off:
The rustic setting and folk music performed at the wedding are pointedly timeless, offsetting the contemporary trappings of dress and manners. This is apt, for Wrona’s inspirations range from Jewish folktales to Polish literature’s longstanding fascination with pagan ghosts and rituals. And although Demon does not quite do justice to a complex historical context, the horror scenes—particularly when Piotr writhes and whimpers as he adopts the female spirit’s manner, his voice and body transformed—are genuinely riveting.
I’d agree that Demon doesn’t “quite do justice to a complex historical context,” but I don’t think it’s trying to. This is a film less about history than about the will of the present to forget history, which makes it less an attempt at justice than a reflection of justified pessimism. As Peter Rainer observes at the Christian Science Monitor, the key may be the wedding reception that never ceases to occupy the film’s background:
The drunken, haunted wedding ceremonies could stand as a black comic allegory of how totalitarian societies, faced with so much suffering, indulge in massive, murderous denial. [The bride’s father] Zgmunt, who for a long time refuses to believe Piotr is possessed, is more concerned with the fate of his wedding guests than with his son-in-law or daughter. He plies the party with more vodka, hoping, with much success, that they will remember the whole sordid affair as a kind of ribald fantasia.
Bottle in hand, Zgmunt’s insistence that the party must continue could be dismissed as nothing more than the demands of a drunken host, but Wrona complicates his speech with a quick cuts: to the guests, slumped in their chairs; to a close-up of hands reassembling a broken vodka glass; to the same room, the guests suddenly absent except for Żaneta, who looks weary and fed up. It’s hard to miss the drift by the time Zygmunt concludes: “We must forget… what we did not see.”
None of this really explains anything, of course; the film even seems rather wary of explanation. As Stuart Liebman writes at Artforum, Demon wants more to provoke questions than to provide answers:
It is to Wrona’s credit that what might seem a far-fetched dramatic premise comes alive in his sharply satirical depiction of a self-involved, closed, even paranoid Polish society unwilling to face its past. The locations he selects—a quarry, a haunted house in the backwaters of Poland—resonate as symbols in a quasi-allegory figuring the fate of the Jews. The story is limned by questions that provoke discomforting reflections: What happened to Hana? How did Żaneta’s family acquire her villa? Is Piotr himself a Jewish avatar? Scattered hints about crimes, of ill-gotten gains, at first obliquely, then with increasing urgency, construct a mournful indictment of a possible marriage of peoples and faiths that, like this wedding, was never fully consummated though the engagement ended in blood.
The film’s conclusion will likely leave some viewers less than satisfied. Even so, as Katie Rife writes at the A. V. Club, it’s likely to stick with you:
By the time we reach the frustratingly vague final act, the burden of centuries of sorrow and death may leave viewers of Demon feeling as broken down as the disheveled, drunken wedding guests on screen. And the film doesn’t offer any easy answers for younger generations confronting these crimes for the first time, either. It’s the kind of film that, rather like its mournful title apparition, clings to your sleeve and follows you home.
It may be difficult to forget, too, for being Wrona’s last. His death last year, in an apparent suicide, may be unlikely to yield many answers of its own, but it renders Demon and its questions all the more vital. As Justin Chang puts it at the Los Angeles Times:
Perhaps it’s best to appreciate “Demon” not for what it implies but for what it simply and unmistakably is: A bravura testament to a talent silenced far too soon.
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The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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