“A Heart of Love” – broadening the battlefield

Considering “A Heart of Love’s” excellent reception at the Rotterdam and Berlin festivals, we might go so far as to say that this modest yet mesmerizing picture will do better abroad this year than high-budget Polish productions.

Ronduda, a renowned curator collaborating with the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and author of numerous notable critical works, lays claim to the world of cinema with his second feature film. His previous movie, The Performer, created jointly with Maciej Sobieszczański, was still difficult to clearly categorize: its protagonist, the famous multimedia artist, photographer, and author of controversial objects and installations, Oskar Dawicki, starred as himself in the picture. In the words of Łukasz Ronduda, Dawicki “performed himself” surrounded by professional actors (Agata Buzek, Andrzej Chyra, Jakub Gierszał, and others) portraying his real-life acquaintances. Therefore, The Performer exists at an intersection of art forms, being a film and a performance at the same time.

A Heart of Love, dir. Łukasz Ronduda

In contrast to Ronduda’s debut, A Heart of Love follows the rules of feature filmmaking. A script authored by eminent playwright Robert Bolesto (The Lure, The Last Family) and Łukasz Gutt’s excellent camera work give the movie a certain futuristic flair. This is significantly less surprising if we consider the director’s explanation that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was the visual point of reference for this depiction of an artistic couple defying all conventions in present-day Poland. A Heart of Love is a movie that lets you savor every carefully arranged frame; it turns out that comparisons with the SF classic aren’t unfounded at all.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was the visual point of reference for this depiction of an artistic couple defying all conventions in present-day Poland.

The protagonists of A Heart of Love are Wojciech Bąkowski and Zuzanna Bartoszek. Bąkowski is a musician, poet, and visual artist; awarded the “Paszport Polityki “prize seven years ago, he attained a unique status in the artistic community of Poland. Bąkowski’s passion about discovering the paradoxes of everyday life, peeking underneath its surface, and repeating seemingly trivial occurrences to turn them into separate, self-propelling performances, is reflected on screen. Due to his focus on the colors of mundanity, Wojciech Bąkowski is sometimes likened to the famous 20th century Polish poet Miron Białoszewski. Very well acquainted with Bąkowski, Ronduda had at first planned to reprise the conventions of The Performer with the artist playing himself.

After hours of discussion with Bąkowski, they arrived at the final concept of A Heart of Love as a chronicle of the artist’s relationship with Zuzanna Bartoszek, a young (born in 1993) poet, illustrator, performer and voguing enthusiast. The result was completely unexpected: watching A Heart of Love gives us the impression that Bartoszek and Bąkowski let us into their private world, sharing their own lives with us. Part of it is probably due to their collaboration with Robert Bolesta on their on-screen dialogues. Additionally, Bąkowski composed the movie’s soundtrack. Ronduda also found a way to get the camera as close as possible to his protagonists while meticulously avoiding any disruption to the autonomy of their identities. Personally, what I find particularly fascinating about A Heart of Love is the fact that we can’t be completely certain whether we’re watching Bąkowski and Bartoszek’s emotions and actions faithfully depicted on the silver screen – or experiencing a performance branded and supported by the two artists, a game, a trick played on viewers, a cunningly crafted trap.

A Heart of Love, dir. Łukasz Ronduda

Jacek Poniedziałek and Justyna Wasilewska deserve a lot of credit for this accomplishment. They achieved an uncanny degree of resemblance to the actual couple – a resemblance so profound that we feel like these actors, known for numerous other roles, have almost merged with the characters, assuming not only their external appearance, but their emotions as well. Justyna Wasilewska recalled that in her pursuit of maximum resemblance to Bartoszek, who suffers from autoimmune disorders, she decided to remove all of her hair, including eyebrows and lashes, which added to the extremely challenging nature to the role. “I got rid of almost all attributes of feminity,” the young actress explained. Łukasz Ronduda admitted that he couldn’t have completed the project with a different cast: “Poniedziałek and Wasilewska threw themselves fully into A Heart of Love. They lent credibility to the tale of these two people who tried to turn all their experiences into art. The protagonists wanted to act like the world around them didn’t affect them at all; they built their own glass bubble of a world and wanted to stay there forever.”

Ronduda’s new film is exceptional in its approach to the protagonists: while standing up for them, it never descends into unconditional praise of the artists. Ronduda and Bolesta do not proclaim that locking oneself away into a separate world of art results in a highly developed form of narcissism – but they do clearly pose this question. The movie also powerfully depicts the problem of the artists’ mutual codependence. Wojciech and Zuzanna eventually begin to clash; the tipping point might the moment when she begins to feel like a conscious, autonomous artist, while he considers himself free to appropriate her concepts, ideas, and even dreams. After all, they’re so similar they seem to be a single person with two reflections that share everything – Łukasz Ronduda calls it “obsessive cohesion”. Is it even possible? Isn’t it unilateral usurpation?

The power of “A Heart of Love” resides in its protagonists, in the way this absolutely unique couple experiences mutual attraction and repulsion.

The director emphasizes Zuzanna’s gradual freeing herself from the influence of her stronger, more artistically established partner. “This film also depicts a specific type of emancipation of a young female artist,” he notes. However, he doesn’t clearly favor Bartoszek or judge Bąkowski in any way. The power of A Heart of Love resides in its protagonists, in the way this absolutely unique couple experiences mutual attraction and repulsion. This is why even those people who aren’t yet perfectly familiar with Bąkowski and Bartoszek will find this story fascinating.

This probably played a role in the movie’s excellent reception in Rotterdam and following its screening at the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded section. An arthouse flick on the surface, A Heart of Love proves that indy cinema isn’t doomed to entrench itself in its stifling niche. It can be understood all over the world – even if you don’t know the context, the tale told by Łukasz Ronduda will resonate with your emotions. This is why A Heart of Love truly broadens the battlefield – a significant breakthrough for art and cinema alike. Bąkowski and Bartoszek’s visual similarity to the characters in the Wachowski sisters’ Matrix makes them mesmerizing. Their looks are also reminiscent of the “changelings” of the world of art and rock music, so often mythologized by the cinema – even though their lives and artistic decisions are completely unique. Could they be the idols of the new era? We shall find that out after the movie’s Polish release in September.

—Jacek Wakar (translated by Dariusz Kołaczkowski)

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