(Poland, 2015, 106mins)
Dir: Jacek Lusiński
Cast: Andrzej Chyra (KACPER), Arkadiusz Jakubik (Wiktor), Urszula Grabowska (Ewa), Tomasz Ziętek (Madejski)
Screenwriter: Jacek Lusiński
DOP: Witold Płóciennik
Editing: Jarosław Barzan
Production Design: Marek Zawierucha
Sound: Artur Kuczowski & Filip Krzemien
Viewed: 20:40, Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3), Tuesday 20th October 2015
This is a both a very safe Polish film production (based upon a headline grabbing news story, set in a public institution and dealing with a potentially tragic central protagonist) and also one that exhibits all the peculiar elements that Poland brings to standardised genre forms. British audiences will be well versed in the mechanics of the ‘disease-of-the-week’ drama, most often a television movie of US provenance aimed squarely at provoking maximum emotional response from the viewer. Carte Blanche doesn’t play by those rules, even if it is operating within the genre. It’s a grittier film, which constantly undercuts the clichéd dynamics of its characters with a particularly blunt attitude towards the disease itself. Perhaps, the hardest thing for a non-Polish audience to get their heads around will be the central dilemma of Andrzej Chyra’s quietly resourceful history teacher. Whereas in Britain a debilitating disease would only be of issue to a person’s employment prospects if it meant their abilities to do the job were grievously impaired, in Poland it is a more awkward issue. This is due to the social stigmas that are, at the very least, implicitly attached to any person who clearly exhibits a disability. Visible disabilities are still very much the stuff of the periphery and margins in Polish public life, with families often overly-insulating disabled relatives from the world, out of fear or embarrassment. Feliks Falk tackled this issue head-on in his melodramatic thriller Enen (a film that deserves greater recognition), and Lusiński does something similar here, only with a more optimistic outlook.
Chyra is one of my favourite contemporary Polish actors. His azure blue eyes are all too bewitching and Lusiński’s decision to focus attention upon them at every possible moment in the movie is a sensible one. Playing the middle-aged history teacher Kacper, based upon real-life Lublin teacher Maciej Białek (who appears in a brief cameo as Kacper’s sarcastic neighbour), Chyra is playing against type as a generally decent man stuck in a situation that requires him to lie. At the beginning of the movie, after the sudden death of his mother, Kacper is made aware that he has a medical condition that has been passed down maternally and will ultimately lead to his eventual blindness. From here on in Kacper is trying to come up with as many solutions to the problems of his disability that will enable him to continue in his teaching position. This complex cover-up ropes in Kacper’s closest friend, played by Arkadiusz Jakubik, who acts as a confidante and sounding board. However, it is only really through the complicity of his students that Kacper is ultimately able to pull the wool over the authorities of the school for long enough to make them question passing any rash judgement on his capacity to carry out his duties of work.
Lusiński and DOP Witold Plóciennik come up with a visual representation of the effects of Kacper’s disease that gradually narrows and distorts the camera lens’ field of vision. As well as limiting what it is Kacper can actually see, the image is further degraded by a switch to a progressively more monochrome colour palette. By the end of the film Kacper is barely able to make out anything and the images that the viewer are exposed to from Kacper’s POV are a murkily indiscernible swarm of motes and dots. It is as if the retina is quite literally raging against the dying of the light. Even though director and DOP do a good job of working out this issue of displaying visual deterioration, they are often prone to overly ostentatious shots of their Lublin locations. This is partly understandable as Lublin is a striking city that has gone somewhat underfilmed in the past. Yet the heavy-handedness of a few of these ‘artful’ shots undermines the otherwise modest and unassuming nature of the film. This is particularly obvious with one overhead shot of the staircase to a work colleague’s flat, Ewa (played by Urszula Grabowska), which forces the visual identification of this ornate spiral stairwell with the contours of the human eye. A shocking accident sequence is far more effective and arresting, as the camera placement suggests the blind spot that Kacper is hitherto unaware of, and does so in a way that barely draws attention to itself.
Another strength of the film is in the dialogue subversions of the script. Seemingly lifeless classroom sequences, in which it is unclear what exactly Kacper is teaching, are suddenly enlivened by a pointed remark from a student, usually Tomasz Ziętek’s cocksure Madejski. Staff meetings point up the petty grievances and jealousies of the teachers. When Kacper is forced to reveal his secret to a character he has come to care about a great deal, he is met with the cold anguish of a remark describing him as a cripple. At times Lusiński overplays the rapport between students and teacher, and there are baffling moments like when it is revealed that Kacper and one of his colleagues don’t even know each other’s names, but the director generally manages to navigate effectively between maudlin sentimentality and cool detachment.
In recent years there have been a number of Polish films tackling the issues related to disability within Polish society, among them the aforementioned Enen, Jacek Bławut’s intense docudrama Born Dead and the technically stunning international co-production Imagine directed by Andrzej Jakimowski. Carte Blanche doesn’t bear comparison to the best of these films, but within its own modest means and buoyed by an excellent central performance it is a light and engaging social drama worthy of a wider audience. Moreover, it is that rarest of films in Poland, namely a feel-good film.