Starring: The Łódź Film School Graduating Class Of 2018
Writer, Director: Jagoda Szelc
The job market proves to be a literal nightmare in Monument. The second feature of the Polish-born Jagoda Szelc, Monument is methodically and theatrically constructed, given an extra edge of realism thanks to the cast — all of whom are this year’s graduating class of the prestigious Łódź Film School. While I fear that the film’s lack of a “conventional narrative” might turn off a subset of the horror-watching audience, there is no denying Monument’s ambition, dreamy construction, and raw performances. If you like your horror with a touch of realism and a whole lot of imposing dread, then Monument is the feature for you.
Though the initial setup of the film is fairly simple, it quickly proves to be anything but. Twenty college-age youths are on a bus to a sort of nebulous internship. They all seem to be there of their own accord, but none of them seem to know each other. They arrive at their destination (a brutalist, semi-run down hotel in the middle of the woods), and they are greeted by a stony, standoffish manager.
The manager instantly starts to dehumanize the students, first making them number off and then assigning them generic, gender-specific names in which they will only be referred to by for the duration of their internship. She then breaks them down further, assigning various blocs of the students to tasks and shifts around the hotel, sowing discontent for the repeated tasks and who undertakes them. From there things start to get … weird. I’m talking casual kidnapping, voyeurism, and murder weird.
Said weirdness is also amplified by the dream-like structure of the film. Written and directed by Szelc, she of the tremendously creepy (and beautiful) Tower. A Bright Day., Monument is presented in a loose collection of vignettes, strung together by voicemails and messages from the students’ family and friends in the outside world. While it builds to a pretty nightmarish (and oddly cathartic) final sequence, I can’t help but wonder how much stronger this would have been with just a touch tighter central narrative.
But that said, that looseness and natural feel of Szelc’s script and direction does give it a bit more, shall we say, unease in its presentation. An unease that is multiplied 20-fold thanks to the cast of unknowns. Branded as a “Graduation Film” in the opening credits, Szelc uses the talented but fairly raw performative clay of the students to her advantage, edging the scenes with an energy and vulnerability absent in larger scale feature productions with professional casts. It’s that much more unsettling to watch as you are essentially watching “real” people in these personal and harrowing situations.
The frustrating side of this coin is that it is really hard to call out specifically good performances. Every character is identified by stagey but stock names, and when you look a bit further, the cast list of the movie just lists characters as “Boy” and “Girl.” The manager doesn’t even get a credit, though her character is definitely one of the more striking in the film. As a theater nerd and major myself, I can appreciate the audacious “collective first” approach to the movie, but as a critic, I have to admit a certain annoyance at not being able to say THIS person was good or THAT person has a presence. Champagne problems, right?
But all and all, Monument is more than worth your time and attention once it hits wider. A singularly theatrical and powerfully raw tonal experience, Jagoda Szelc’s second feature radiates with a dangerous, honest energy that we need more of in indie features. People will surely have nitpicks with it, as I did, but the experience of watching this far outweighs a few (to be honest) logistical problems the movie might have. I was biting my nails throughout the whole running time of Monument, and nothing was even happening. It is rare that a movie has that kind of power. Monument is one of those movies.