By Tara Judah
I’m reticent to write scathing reviews of films. Not because it’s unfair to the filmmaker, or because I’m concerned about being unkind, but because the truly awful movies that we lay into become infamous, and what I don’t want is to become a PR ambassador for a poor film. On the flip side, not calling out hegemonic sexism and appalling ideology is tantamount to keeping my mouth shut and, therefore, allowing those dominant or dangerous ideologies to prevail.
Using disappointingly one-dimensional stereotypes to tell a male coming-of-age story is Anu Aun’s Estonian entry into the Official Competition at the 38th Cairo International Film Festival, Polaarpoiss (Polar Boy).
Hanna (Jaanika Arum) is the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl; suffering bipolar disorder, which was previously known as manic depression, she is literally manic. Constantly referred to as ‘crazy’, meaning free spirited or pixie-like, she also represents the kind of socially perceived car-crash behaviour that lends itself well to male protagonist self-actualisation on screen. This is the narrative tool a character about to come-of-age, like Matthias (Roland Laos), dreams of, making her the MPDG of cinema’s most sexist dreams.
A photographer with technical talent but a gormless personality, Matthias must find his ‘soul’ if he is to be accepted into the prestigious photography school, also of his dreams, in Berlin. When he encounters Hanna on a tram, he follows her, like the proverbial white rabbit, all the way down the rabbit hole. Artistic but not unruly, Matthias racks up a great list of crimes and misdemeanours under the intoxicating influence of our MPDG supreme: he is arrested for trespassing, almost expelled from school, and temporarily incarcerated in a psychiatric facility for a mental illness that he is faking in the hopes of getting out of a jail sentence for his unprovoked, violent anti-social behaviour. But, according to the film’s classical, causal narrative, she led him down the rabbit hole.
Immediately reminiscent of Me, Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) – last year’s peach of a white, cis-gendered, hetero, artistic male’s narrative at the expense of (O)thers – Polaarpoiss is troubling because of its insistence on the development of his soul through the exploitation of her agency.
For those who enjoy narratives built upon the notion of a man controlling and breaking a woman’s spirit, Polaarpoiss offers 97 minutes of lols. But, for anyone who has any comprehension of emotional and psychological abuse, cycles of control involving shame and gas lighting, or even a vague understanding of gender politics and mental illness, this one gives Love and Other Drugs (2010) a run for its money.
In the interests of trying to understand the alternative perspective, here are what I see as the two competing versions of reading the narrative:
- Matthias is persistent. Matthias stalks Hanna.
- Hanna is Matthias’ muse. vs Matthias takes pictures of Hanna without her consent and gives one with her in it to his friends to use as their album cover, for free, without her permission and without negotiating any payment or royalties scheme for her.
- His love is so strong that he refuses to go away even when she is suffering and wants to be alone. vs She is so frightened of his abusive behaviour that she literally runs to the end of the earth, ending up in the ocean. She has two options in front of her: drowning herself or staying alive, with him.
All this and still the worst aspect of the film is the treatment of her bipolar disorder. When Matthias finds out he goes to Wikipedia for a definition – it’s difficult to imagine such ignorance but perhaps this is the first time his character has ever used the internet, or engaged with other people in society, too. After calling it a ‘disease’, he confronts her, “Do you think you’re the only one who feels shitty sometimes? I know exactly how you feel.” He also says, “You’re no more bipolar than me or anyone else. You’re just sensitive.” So, unless the subtitle translation from Estonian into English is entirely incorrect, I’m going to go ahead and say can that the film does not have critical distance and that the dominant reading is not a condemnation of Matthias’ behaviour towards Hanna. He is gas lighting her and we, as viewers, are supposed to side with him.
The evidence I see is as follows; when she says she is ashamed of her condition, he is silent; when she speaks up about his inability to see the real her, he walks away and ignores her calls; he doubts her constantly and assigns blame to her self-doubt, “How can I trust you if you don’t trust yourself?” Finally, when the narrative crescendo hits – why she engaged in sexual conduct with another guy at a party after their fight – the resolve is victim blaming. Despite being intoxicated (at the coercion of the other guy) she blames herself, “I couldn’t control myself.” Instead of sticking up for her and inserting any kind of suggestion that someone too intoxicated to give consent shouldn’t be blamed, or even in making the events about her, the film focuses on the effect this has on Matthias, which was to push the other guy through a window. When questioned by the police about why he acted violently, he replies, “I was upset. She’s my girlfriend.” Though the possessive nature of his reply isn’t quite enough to get him off the hook, he ultimately succeeds through mimicking the symptoms of her bipolar disorder that he has since observed. That is to say that he uses what he has now learnt about her condition to get out of jail and justifies it by once again blaming her, “You use your disorder every day.” As if being bipolar were like having some sort of special swipe card that gives you access to the executive lounge of life.
Still, at every turn, he is the unsung hero of the film; he sells his expensive camera collection to pay for the microsurgery of his friend, who he put in hospital, and it is shown as a redemptive act (other characters forgive him) and the narrative resolution is his acceptance into the Berlin photographic school.
With just one mathematics exam standing between him and his photographic career, his final choice in the film comes down to one of self or other (Hanna). She texts him to let him know that she is about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. But, *facepalm* he has that exam to get to… And so, he leaves Hanna to her family and chooses his future career above her future as a living being.
Even the official synopsis of the film in the festival’s catalogue points to Matthias as the character with whom we should align ourselves, “Matthias risks everything dear and near unknowing that Hanna’s bold acts are only the symptoms of bipolar disorder. In a moment of jealousy, Matthias accidentally commits a crime that could put him behind bars for years.” All about the dude.
I’ve given this a lot of thought but, no matter which way you look at it, it’s a turd.
Most distressing for me was the utterance of the line, “Should a student’s life be ruined over one mistake?” Far too reminiscent of recent events in the US concerning the lack of conviction over rape charges because a ‘talented’ student whose actions, though criminal and ruinous of another person’s life, were just excused as a ‘mistake’. It is not surprising to see art imitate life but what is upsetting, enraging and completely not okay is that the so-called art is imitating abuse, control and victim-blaming of women and sufferers of mental illness without condemnation – worse still, for entertainment.
Watching this film genuinely made the hope I have for equality and humanity die a little inside. So, while I don’t like to lay into a film, I had to write something to fight back, even a little, against the systematic abuse of women and sufferers of mental illnesses.
Not only do I think this film is appalling but I also think it is inexcusable to show it at a so-called prestigious film festival, let alone in the Official Competition.
Director: Anu Aun
Screenplay: Anu Aun
Cinematography: Heiko Sikka
Editing: Margo Siimon
Producer: Priit Pääsuke, Kaspar Kaljas
Contact: Luxfilm, Priit Pääsuke
Estonia, 2016, 96 min