Review: ‘Kamper’ a quirky, challenging intro to Polish cinema

By Ian Flanagan / Senior Staff Writer

In the climax of the Polish romantic drama “Kamper,” the titular protagonist manically tries to escape from his problems as he dances alone in a small, nightclub-like room during a night of unruly drinking.

Even with a somewhat selfish lead, the  documentary drama filmmaker Lukasz Grzegorzek creates colorful, chaotic shots and uses dramatic music to make the moment — as he does in similar scenes throughout “Kamper” — powerful.

The Polish Cultural Council of Pittsburgh co-presented “Kamper” last week, as the last showing of the Three Rivers Film Festival’s Thursday night schedule. The PCC, founded 80 years ago, also presented two other films, “Blindness” and “The Last Family,” which debuted later in the weekend. “Kamper,” subtitled for English-speaking audiences, made its Pittsburgh debut at Regent Square Theater.  

The art of cinematography has historically been Poland’s most recognized contribution to world cinema, and “Kramper” is an excellent representation of this tradition for audiences new to Polish film. Grzegorzek’s crisp, handheld camerawork brings a fluid realism to “Kamper,” honoring the nation’s tradition of visual excellence and providing fresh perspective to well-worn romantic situations.

The fiction debut of Grzegorzek, who also co-wrote the screenplay, roots itself in complex, convincingly portrayed characters. Like 2013’s “Ida,” Poland’s first Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, “Kamper” is a character study that often doesn’t even need dialogue to convey an emotion.

The film follows Kamper (Piotr Zurawski), a young married man and video game developer, and focuses on his debilitating drift apart from his wife Mania (Marta Nieradkiewicz), who recently confessed to some level of intimacy with her boss.

Despite the inexperienced married couple’s supposed happiness at the beginning of the film — seen when they’re cooking together and making jokes — we see Kamper’s struggle with his own lustful desires. During a night out with friends from work, Marek Bana (Jacek Braciak) and Dorota (Justyna Suwala) — both of whom manage to seem fleshed out in minute roles — Kamper meets a Spanish woman Luna (Sheily Jimenez) who offers to tutor him in her language.

These meetings between Kamper and Luna make up a small portion of the film, but they are the most striking. The cold blues and grays, especially in the scenes that take place at a domestic or work setting, contrast with an orange glow that occupies these flirtatious encounters. The sensuous close-ups of Luna’s mouth during these sessions aligns the camera with Kamper’s infatuation.

With their infidelity,This lead couple is not one most audiences would root for, but the tragedy of their crumbling relationship reveals our characters’ virtues and flaws in their delicate moments of betrayal, temptation and difficult communication.

A recurring bit involves Kamper or Mania returning alone to their shared residence, sneaking around and waiting for the other to pop out and scare them. As the tension increases over the course of the film and the couple’s secrets surface, this setup pays off well.

Though its drab portrait of Kamper becoming complacent with a great life often darkens the piece’s dramatic tone, there are humorous moments that suggest something more existential about this film’s depiction of love run amok by infidelity.

In the film’s funniest scene, Kamper, jealous of the Mania’s boss, imagines him as a chef of Gordon Ramsay-esque machismo, all illustrated via a parody episode of television.  

By focusing primarily on the male perspective of “Kamper’s” central relationship, you might think the film is asking you to choose Kamper’s side of the story. But an intimate look at his discontented life — as he fails both in maintaining his personal relationship and in developing a popular new video game — juxtaposed with a surface-level, pitiable view of Mania’s own pain ultimately, challenges the audience’s empathy. It’s hard to care deeply about a character as fortunate as Kamper, but this is the film’s only obvious flaw.

Jealousy and temptation seem to challenge how individuals react to fickle problems, especially when one can disrupt happiness and a monogamous relationship with one poor decision. Luna’s character appears as some sort of relief from the monotony of Kamper’s life, but escapism that directly reinforces viewers’ own shortcomings and sorrow doesn’t actually do much good.

Grzegorzek’s examination of a doomed relationship feels cautionary. People may feel disconnected from their passions and those who care for them, even when things are going well. But a look at Kamper’s destructive tendencies can make viewers reconsider what they value in their own lives.

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