Demon is a powerful movie that, once seen, can’t be easily shaken off.
Demon, directed by Marcin Wrona. In Polish, English, and Yiddish. Opens Sept. 16 at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
By Betsy Sherman
With Demon, director Marcin Wrona marbles together an effectively creepy modern take on The Dybbuk and an artful exploration of how the convenient forgetting of past injustices can prove to be dangerous. On both counts, this is a powerful movie that, once seen, can’t be easily shaken off.
The opening frames show a yellow backhoe, its driver unseen, tearing through the empty streets of a rural Polish town like a Pixar character that’s busted through a multiplex wall into an entirely different genre. That same morning, a handsome, dark-haired young man with a bit of a bad boy affect is ferried to an island. Disturbance and dislocation await him on the other side of the water. He goes to a construction site and, for the first time, meets the father of the woman he’s come to marry. The businessman father-in-law, Zygmunt, speaks in accented English and calls the younger man Peter. The newcomer wants to speak in Polish and be called Piotr. The groom-to-be is played by Israeli actor Itay Tiran, but it’s never specified what religion or nationality he is, just that he and the bride’s brother Jasny were friends in London, and that the romance between Piotr and Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) has been a whirlwind, conducted mainly over Skype.
Zaneta’s well-to-do parents are giving the young couple a rundown country house that belonged to her grandparents. Piotr, an architect who has offered to build a bridge to the island, will supervise the renovations. The day after Piotr’s arrival, a traditional Polish wedding will take place in the adjacent barn. The guests are all bride’s-side, since Piotr is there on his own, in strange territory. He gets a dose of how strange when, awkwardly operating that backhoe, he unearths a skeleton. Later, he has a vision in the rain of a young woman in a long white dress—and he’s promptly sucked into the mud.
On the wedding day, Jasny salutes his friend’s new life as a husband and a Pole by invoking his old nickname: “Python has died, and in his place is born Piotr.” The real change of identity is yet to come, and for a while the movie bounces along pleasurably as an archly comic fish-out-of-water story. At the wedding dinner, Piotr does his best with Polish, and everything seems fine until the groom gets a nosebleed, notices his ring is no longer on his finger, and there’s that otherworldly woman again, this time clutching him in a dance.
Piotr undergoes convulsions and begins speaking a language that’s neither English nor Polish. Zygmunt springs into damage control. The groom is spirited away to the cellar of the house, where a small clutch of family and guests try to figure out what’s wrong. The cynical doctor, who talks way too much, and the priest, who contributes way too little, function as an oil-and-water comedy team. It’s up to Professor Wentz, who has been introduced as a sort of Chekhovian presence who’s patronized by the other guests, to explain. He’s the town’s token little old Jewish man, and he not only recognizes the Yiddish Piotr is speaking—in a high voice, with a feminine posture and gestures—but also that the spirit that has taken over his body belongs to Hana, a young woman who had vanished years ago, and on whom he had a crush when he was a boy.
Demon was adapted from a play with a title that is translated as Adherence or The Clinging. The dybbuk of Jewish folklore, the spirit of a dead person that fuses with that of a living one, has usually been depicted with a male spirit entering a woman. Hana—whose name Piotr had seen on a column of notches marking children’s heights—seems to have been waiting for Piotr to arrive. While the angry father-in-law wants to have the marriage annulled, Zaneta intends to stand by her possessed man. Meanwhile, as the rain falls and the roof leaks, the guests party on, dancing, swilling vodka and shedding clothes in an altogether different display of clinging.
The cast is uniformly good, but Tiran’s performance is really extraordinary. He made a world tour as Hamlet, and one can guess that Wrona wanted him to draw upon that role for this project. Before Tiran convincingly becomes the frightened, then righteously angry, Hana, his Piotr carefully calibrates his emotions in the presence of his new family and their guests. Once Piotr starts speaking in Hana’s voice, her tirade about having been cheated out of a groom (“He was promised to me!”) becomes a metaphor for all that she, her family, and her community were cheated out of by the deportation and extermination of the Jews by the gentile Poles and Germans. This vanished world is brought to life by the reminiscences of Wentz, its deeply lonely survivor.
Earth, air and water—and the combinations mud and mist—are palpable parts of the storytelling in Demon (no fire in all this dampness). Zygmund, upholder of the status quo, wearily tries to make the guests believe that what they’ve seen is a “collective hallucination,” and the depiction of nature here makes that almost ring true. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the soundtrack is crucial in the effort to unsettle the audience. The eerie score is by Marcin Macuk, with several pieces by Krzysztof Pendercki (whose music was used in The Shining). And hey, the gypsy-inspired wedding band is no slouch, either.
This will be the final film by the talented Wrona—he committed suicide while at the Gdynia Film Festival on September 19, 2015. It ends in circular fashion, with Zaneta standing on the ferry, an image that for me conjured up Julie Christie at the end of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The stars gone from her eyes, the bride appears to be able to see through the cover-ups she’s been living with until this eventful night.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.