Possession: Marcin Wrona’s Demon

Itay Tiran in a scene from DEMON

Directed by Marcin Wrona
Opens September 9

Cynics and pragmatists suggest that unknown factors surface after marriage. Demon, an often auspicious union of satire and horror, offers a variation. The night before his country-house wedding, Piotr (Itay Tiran) conducts the traditional investigation of a suspicious noise, and is sucked down into the mud, where unknown factors enter into him. In one of the film’s several clever anti-climaxes, his friend and future brother-in-law Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt) later finds him sleeping in the backseat of a car: a little filthy and disoriented, and thoroughly possessed.

Co-written and directed by Marcin Wrona, Demon was inspired by a contemporary play, in which the possessed character belongs to a criminal gang. Another relevant model is S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk, in which a bride becomes possessed by the spirit of a suitor her father denied. Demon’s demon is also a dybbuk, which is to say it’s the ghost of Hana, a Jewish girl who—we are told—disappeared many years ago, just before the grandfather of Piotr’s bride, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), moved into her house.

Piotr’s trouble really begins when he unearths human bones on this property; unwilling to bother his fiancé with this trifle, he covers them back up, and is subsequently mud-sucked. When the subject finally arises, Zaneta’s father (Andrzej Grabowski) tries to quash it; probably a dog, he says. In Ansky’s play, one generation’s bad-faith machinations become the ruin of the next, and while’s it’s clear Demon’s ghost is a dybbuk more for historical than for exoticist reasons, the film is muddled by its weirdly coy presentation of Hana’s death—presumably at her neighbor’s hands—as an isolated crime.

Wrona, who died last year, said he was interested in “the demons of the past.” In fact, leavened by wide shots of the tranquil and ominous Polish countryside, his film is a kind of “naïve allegory;” an allegory based on mixed metaphor. The setting is contemporary (some indoor scenes resemble the music video interiors of the late 90s); Piotr and Zaneta are young. Obviously, Hana the dybbuk stands in for the Polish Jews killed during the German occupation of Poland. Her death makes no sense without that context, but “Holocaust” is a word unspoken in this film. Somebody notes that a bridge the Germans blew up still hasn’t been rebuilt, but that’s the extent of it.

What does get spoken in Demon, in addition to Polish and English, is Yiddish. As the ceremony commences, Piotr loses control of his limbs and then his tongue; gamely, Tiran seizes, sweats, and groans; not violently, but miserably. His Piotr is both the accidental victim of Old Country repression, and himself at fault for joining in the cover-up. Wrona’s matchmaking of genres here is effective; Piotr’s suffering forms a counterpoint to the absurdist wedding, thrown by a bullying bigwig and attended by the whole town.

It’s the party, not the marriage, that offers the material for satire. The guests gossip about the faulty bridegroom; Zaneta’s family, determined to save face, keep the vodka coming; the cowardly priest and drunk doctor offer only ineptitude. The body national is ailing, but since the illness is historical, neither the priest nor the doctor can help. An old teacher, the town’s sole remaining Jewish resident, diagnoses Piotr’s condition, but the only treatment Demon finally offers is a kind of exile—a dissatisfying conclusion, given that no land is without its old blood and mud.

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