Directed by: Agata Korycka | Reviewed by: Sabarno Sinha
This 2020 Polish production on the awakening and acceptance of a woman’s lesbian sexuality in a world being swept over by conservatism and regression, where society is returning to being as orthodox as it once was. Set against the backdrop of the right-wing protests in Poland, Korycka’s “By the River” is a poignant long short that tells us much about the strife of a closeted lesbian woman as she realizes that her heterosexual relationship is nothing but a farce demanded by the heteropatriarchal society.
From the very beginning, the cinematography and shot composition is quite sublime and works well in revealing the emotions and inner tension of the protagonist, Kinga, a left-inclined policewoman who starts falling for Daria during a time when the Polish wish to cherish their “white” blood and all the so-called purity that comes with it. Kinga rebels by collecting shit and dropping them in the lawns of the wealthy conservatives. This keeps her sane for her duty demands her to protect the very same people while they go about protesting abortion and gay rights.
Gaze plays a very important role in Korycka’s film as can be seen in the scene wherein Kinga has to confront her lesbian disposition and likings. Daria’s strong gaze on her, as she strips down, fashioning a beard, has a strong impact which ultimately forces her to flee for she is unable to accept her emotions without being incontinent to her current boyfriend. Daria’s sexually provoking movements lay bare her desire for the woman, evoking tension and awe in the latter. Realization and revelation are succeeded by acceptance.
Another poignant scene in the film is undoubtedly the one in which the two play in the shallow waters while caressing each other and making love. It is here that Daria reveals that she is not ready for a commitment. Yet, their resemblance with children at this point almost symbolizes a rebirth. Neither can undo what has been done. Kinga can’t return to her “normal” heterosexual life and Daria cannot stop loving her. Kinga remarks, “Part time is not love” and cries out for she must suppress her feelings once again to keep things right. The colours are warm and the atmosphere is bright and yet, the mood is quite the opposite. But, the top-angle mid-shot of the two lying down seems about ironically perfect in depicting these exchanges between the two.
Although Daria’s character is not explored much other than the fact that she is afraid of committing due to certain past mishaps, there’s a lot that is revealed about the psychology of Kinga. When she finds her fellow officers backing out from rescuing left-wing protestors from getting beaten and maimed by the right-wing extremists, we are certain that Kinga’s defiance has not been dampened by Daria’s rejection of her proposal that they move in together. Even though the entire police force may have been told by her ex-boyfriend that she is lesbian, she doesn’t care about her reputation when she steps in to defend her friends. When torn between code and honour, she chooses the latter for she is established as a strong and bold woman who is capable of doing anything. Her strength doesn’t dissipate when she has to protect those who chant “Blood, Land, White Race!” or “God, Honour and Fatherland!” Kinga’s own self-sacrifice gets her suspended from duty but karma has her back. The flippant and commitment-phobic Daria comes to understand that she must stop looking for substitutes and instead, place her love in someone who deserves it.
One of the more prominent features (or lack thereof) in the film is its background score/music. It is kept to a minimum throughout and when it is actually used, it conveys a very strong tension or emotion which is accentuated by the lack of it in most of the film. Agata Korycka’s film may be considered minimalistic in its elements and yet, they do not fail to convey the right emotions and moods in the right places, which is what ultimately makes the film a success. The last shot of the bridge, not only brings hope for the audience but also reminds us that some bonds passionately made truly do not break.
Sabarno Sinha is an undergraduate student of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He was active in the debating and MUN circuit in Kolkata. Sabarno frequently writes short stories, poems and screenplays for short films. A lover of world cinema, Sabarno finds pleasure in watching contemporary as well as classic films from Japan, Italy and Germany among others.