Wind glances off tree branches as fat insects flit around the viewer’s head. Haunting blasts of electronic noise reverberate through the soundtrack. Even sips of water are crisp and isolated in the mix. A relentless aural experience, Tower. A Bright Day demands to be seen with headphones or a good stereo sound system. The sound design is punishingly self-conscious in its attention to detail. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t follow suit.
In rural Poland, Mula (Anna Krotoska) is a housewife, a mother, and a bit of a control freak. Her daughter Nina (Laila Hennessy) is about to celebrate her First Communion—like most Polish people, her family is Catholic. They gather for the occasion, including Mula’s estranged sister Kaja (Malgorzata Szczerbowska), who disappeared six years ago for mysterious reasons and happens to be Nina’s real mother. Mula invites Kaja to the festivities on the condition of secrecy, but her dominion over her house and family won’t be so easy to maintain.
“As the family walks an uneasy tightrope of good manners and Mula has strange visions at night…”
I loved the first minutes, where we stalk a car from the skies as a melancholic, buzzing cacophony of feedback builds. As the family walks an uneasy tightrope of good manners and Mula has strange visions at night, Tower. A Bright Day brims with potential. But as the runtime goes on, the two sides of the film—tense domestic drama, sublime art-horror—are an odd fit that doesn’t come together. The reasons for Mula’s fear of Kaja and Kaja’s disappearance are never clear. The audience never has enough information to judge or sympathize with these characters as we would in a more conventional movie.
That’s not a problem by itself. I was interested to find out more—or, because this is an art movie, have my desire to know more pivoted into a more mysterious grand design. But as the plot disintegrated into events that were completely without dramatic cause, I found myself lost in whatever game of overt symbolism the movie was playing.
The issue might be cultural. Polish critics loved Tower. A Bright Day when it premiered at the Gdynia Film Festival, and the film’s religious themes might resonate more with the social landscape of Poland than that of America, where the notion of spirituality divorced from religious dogma is not so radical anymore.
“The sound design is punishingly self-conscious in its attention to detail…”
I hate to do this, but I looked up an interview with director Jagoda Szelc in Cineuropa to figure out what I had missed in Tower. A Bright Day’s difficult final minutes. Of course, I didn’t find any answers, but Szelc’s explanations of her intentions made me less interested in what the answers would be. Would you believe me if I told you that the first part of the movie’s title refers to one of the characters, and the second part refers to another one? That one of the characters is a “fortification,” and another is a “phenomenon?”
With Art-with-a-capital-A films that dabble in symbolism and non sequitur, one person’s pretentious trash can be another’s religious experience. A film can throw surreal dreamscapes and men wearing creepy bunny costumes at me until the cows come home, but if there’s no emotional anchor or drama in what’s happening, I usually get bored. Like last year’s Mother, Tower. A Bright Day starts “normal,” but eventually it tells a story about allegorical constructs, not human behavior. Take that as you will, as a recommendation or warning.
Tower. A Bright Day (2018) Written and directed by Jagoda Szelc. With Anna Krotoska, Malgorzata Szczerbowska, Anna Zubrzycki, Dorota Lukasiewicz, Rafal Kwietniewski, Rafal Cieluch. Tower. A Bright Day screened at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival.
5 out of 10 stars