To even begin to try and explain Jagoda Szelc’s sophomore feature Monument would be to do it a complete disservice. Presenting more questions than answers and lulling you into a cathartic state of hypnosis, her collaboration with the graduating acting class of the famous Polish school Lodz Film Academy acts not only as a ceremonial release from the students’ years of hard work but also as the celebratory arrival of a new auteur voice.
Its ambiguous plot centres around a group of young people embarking on their new internship at a supposedly high-class hotel. Complete strangers at first, this group are quite quickly forced to rely on each other when they meet their new Manager (Dorota Lukasiewicz) who is quick to demean them by refusing to learn their names. Boys are all given name tags that say ‘Pawel’ and girls, ‘Ania’. Stripped of their identities, they are sent to various departments in the hotel to learn the trade: housekeeping, laundry, kitchen, spa, outdoor management.
These pretty banal activities and repetitive chores are presented without flair; one might even consider them slow. Conversations between interns and the clients they serve feel almost intentionally mind-numbing, but an ugly, sinister undercurrent runs throughout every scene. From the dishevelled appearance of this ‘high class’ hotel to the catatonic fat lady one of the girls cares for in the Victorian-looking spa, Monument possesses a level of uncomfortable grime on each of its surfaces.
However, it isn’t just the films aesthetics that are unsettling − the interns’ compliance with them even more so, but the power-play behaviour from the Manager consistently puts her interns into precarious situations. For example, one evening after a wedding reception the interns are scolded for poor service and sent into a back room to be told off. They all eventually emerge with subtle pin pricks on their necks. Moments like these are never explained or followed up on but the layers of discomfort add up for a truly mesmerising experience. A hog-tied naked man lays on a bathroom floor as if he’s nothing more than litter, three girls mime out sexual movements and breathe like a scene from Midsommar and a girl lays naked amongst rats in the basement. This group psychological breakdown is slow and unnerving, flashing glimpses of a scream or a cut to the large stone block (the monument from which the film gets its title) the outdoor interns are cleaning almost feel as if you never really saw them at all.
There does often feel like a clear need to let each student get their ‘moment’ − their clip for their showreel, which sometimes makes some scenes feel longer than necessary to allow for their monologues, but Szelc is clear that her filmmaking is a group effort. She believes in the word ‘team’ rather than ‘crew’ so that each individual feel like a working cog in the machine that builds the final product and ultimately, Monument feels like a living organism. So completely alive and visceral with so many layers to analyse it would be impossible to pin it down after a first watch.
Reaching its end, the film becomes part-Suspiria, part-Climax in a penultimate scene that is some of the most invigorating and raw filmmaking you will see this year. In a film that’s use of sound is beyond excellent, guttural human noises cracking through even the quietest of moments, Monument’s finale is a symphony of cult-like human energy.
With little interest in providing stability and explanation, Szelc’s work feels daringly original, she commands her images with a level of grotesque beauty that is wild and free. To sit through the unhurried nature of its set-up is to be rewarded with an experience that gets deeper under the skin than ever initially believed.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here