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The Face of the Other: Close-Up on Małgorzata Szumowska’s “Mug”

A story of self-acceptance in times of hostility, Małgorzata Szumowska’s new feature poses deeply ethical questions.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Małgorzata Szumowska's Mug (2018), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from May 28 – June 26, 2019 in MUBI's Viewfinder series.
Mug
“But does he who loves someone on account of beauty really love that person? No; for the small-pox, which will kill beauty without killing the person, will cause him to love her no more.” A deeply humanistic conclusion regarding humanity rests in the discrepancy between one’s face and one’s personality, as French philosopher Blaise Pascal suggests, and cinema, most of all art forms, possesses the paradigm to represent and overcome it through empathy. Yet, in its tradition of swapping and changing character faces—which has a long cinema history, including The Face Behind the Mask, The Face of Another, Face/Off, and Phoenix—one film stands out with its poignant, yet light-hearted approach, colloquially calling itself Mug.
Małgorzata Szumowska’s newest feature is in keeping with the Polish director’s themes of individual suffering and the social significance of care. While Body (2015) offered a cinematic equivalent of therapeutic practice for its protagonists, Mug shifts the previous film’s ambivalent relation between physicality and psyche to the ethically charged question of the face. Jacek (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) is a hardcore headbanger and Metallica fan who seems malapropos in rural Poland, while his extended family’s preachy but partial Catholicism takes no hold of his joyous lifestyle. After an unfortunate incident on the construction site of the world’s tallest Jesus sculpture (yes, in western Poland, not in Rio de Janeiro), he recovers with an innovative face transplant. Eventually, Jacek becomes a prominent test to his family, fiancé, and the community’s allegiance to humanism and unconditional love. Szumowska is, as always, caring of her protagonists in a way that none of the characters in her story are, testifying to a director’s social engagement with the medium’s ability to enhance human connection. With an uncompromisingly hopeful protagonist, the film wields a bold critique of intolerance, wishfully suggesting that man is not an island.
While the film’s claim for social realism is satisfied by its alternation between the family world and the workplace, its opening sequence provides a peculiar insight of its political overtones. Cold hues drench the frame as hundreds of winter-clothed Poles await the opening of a department store with its neon sign pronouncing an “Underwear Stampede Christmas Sale.” Stampede is the best analogy for the social behavior and frenzy that follows, as the doors open and naked figures of all shapes and sizes push and grab each other to secure the reduced-price LCD TV. The eerie bird’s eye view hovers over its zombie-like objects—bodies piling over goods—while alluding to the consumer hysteria following barren Communist times. Undoubtedly, the exercise of social criticism transcends its behavioral accusation, yet its visual form throughout the film is more palpable. Mug is lensed in an uncomfortable way: diffused edges leave off a tight central focus, an allegory for narrow sight which urges the spectator’s attention to make out the hazy backgrounds and obscured details. In other words, by disrupting the viewing experience, Mug demands of us to keep a bigger picture in mind.
Painted as a fleshed-out portrait, the protagonist instantaneously earns our empathy way before the accident and his face transplant. “Jacek” is a fairly popular Polish name, yet its ancient origins (Hyacinth, Apollo’s equally gifted lover, who fatally suffered the god’s jealousy) suggest a presence at odds with its surroundings. The metalhead is defined by his Metallica-patched denim jacket, his long hair and prominent beard, and his allegiance to Christianity manifests through his Jesus and Virgin Mary arm tattoos.  Kościukiewicz’s performance is heartwarming and endearing, as the young man charms with his mischievous smile and bellicose attitude, jokingly refusing to pay for the family Christmas pig because he wants to move to post-Brexit London.
Equally rejected by the community, short-haired Dagmara (feisty Malgorzata Gorol) dances to similar whims, and boy, how they dance together! Amidst the slow decay of a conservative Christmas party where people only bother to tap their feet to a rhythm, Jacek and Dagmara steal the dancefloor with a bang tuned to Gigi Agostino’s electro anthem “L’amour Toujours.” Their intricate connection is more physical than conversational, as childlike wonder lifts their limbs in the air and sways them in and out of the beat. Flares and bright lights adorn their faces in romantic framing as they kiss and Jacek’s face is the focus of close-ups only when paired with his lover’s. Positioned in medium or long shots, only the aural presence of his character dominates the visual field, as his beauty and the significance of his face becomes emphasized only in retrospect.
The absurdist circumstances around Jacek’s disfiguration make a strong case for Szumowska’s assessment of Catholic symbols devoid of interpersonal warmth. The small town of Swiebodzin priding in the (as it turns out, imperfect) statue of Christ the King becomes a caricature of the director’s own nation and its the right-wing conservative fear of the other, whether in religious, racial, or gender terms. Mug showcases a full religious calendar, from a wedding to a funeral, confessions and clergy meetings, to mark the superficial distance of an institution to the existential value of lived life.
Even when his family is secretly calling him “alien” or “monster” after his surgery Jacek remains touchingly sincere in front of a mirror, touching his face with an immutable sense of wonder and curiosity, whispering the confident “It’s me, it’s me.” Mirrors here exist more as a construct of society’s fears than as an objective reflection of reality. The hospital glass walls are panoptical, robbing Jacek’s recovery of privacy yet they manage to attract more sympathy than mirrors. “Will God even recognize him with somebody else’s face?”, his mother ponders, voicing the fears of a community devoid of its humanity, as her hostile attitude finds her in the periphery of the frame, spying on Jacek's reflection, or observing her son’s attempts to regain his fiancé’s lost affection. The dialogue becomes even more sparse as Jacek’s inarticulate words meet his family’s deafening silence, and this rejection of conversation testifies to a new, unspoken, degree of ostracization. While its protagonist accumulates tragic potential, the impossible equation between personality and appearance rules him out of the social order and introduces him to a higher meaning of solitude.
Mug openly engages in criticism of discriminatory behavior but does not spare Jacek’s racist outburst against the Muslim construction workers who labor day and night alongside him on the scaffolding. At the same time, humor shines through in witty details, such as naming the family dog Cygan (Gypsy) and the loving discourse around the pet which muffles any racist undertones. A similar tonal transition bridges one of the early sequences as Jacek jokingly pushes a town bus into motion to entertain Dagmara, who is observing him lovingly from the vehicle’s back seat, to the ending, where Jacek is framed alongside that same bus in solitude. The now solitary extreme long shot marks the disruption between his two lives, as well as the refuted acceptance in social and familial circles that persists as self-acceptance.  Jacek’s relationship with his own (new) face is straightforward and loving. If only it was that easy for everyone else.
The film’s main theme resonates not only on an interpersonal ethical level, embodied by Dagmara’s sudden disappearance and break-off of their engagement, but also on a social note—post-accident Jacek is excluded from pension and financial aid—and on a political level, as an allegory for conservative discrimination: his appearance being unacceptable to the crowd. By the end of Mug, the intentionally diluted sight of the camera acquires an important ethical stance: seeing is as powerful as being seen. The face of the Other may be a mug and this is a triumph of beauty—the tangible kind, that constitutes mutual recognition and togetherness.

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