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True Crimes | 2016 Warsaw Film Festival Review

Cold Communist Files: Avranas Paints Unorthodox Procedural into Mincing Eurotrash

A late addition to the Greek Weird Wave thanks to his 2013 sophomore title Miss Violence, Alexandros Avranas gets a chance at high profile international attention with his latest feature, True Crimes, based on a 2008 article by David Grann in the New Yorker adapted for the screen by Belgian writer/director Jeremy Brock. Notably, the property once belonged to Roman Polanski and was set to star Christoph Waltz. A major international coproduction shot within the beautifully preserved confines of Krakow, the project was perhaps always destined to be illogically filmed in English, even though it’s specific to the political historical fluctuations of Poland. Much like Vincent Perez’s recent Alone in Berlin unveiling at the Berlin International Film Festival, one wonders what the desired effect is of premiering a film headlined by notable but questionably cast actors performing in accented English, at least concerning its initial reception on a native Polish audience. Attempting to showcase the systematic corruption operating underneath the country’s revitalization in the move from communism to capitalism, this muddled treatment (the enumerative portion of Grann’s original title classifies this as a ‘postmodern murder mystery’) valiantly tries to capture the decadently depraved ghosts haunting Poland’s past but ends up being a tawdry test of endurance.

In December of 2000, the tied up body of a prominent businessman was pulled out of the Oder River in Poland. The man’s killer was never found, and eventually the case went cold. When a demeaned police inspector Tadek (Jim Carrey) is told by a superior (Vlad Ivanov) he can be reinstated to his former glory if he manages to redeem himself by doing something exceptional, the weary cop immediately stumbles onto this case. A revered fiction writer, Kozlow (Marton Csokas) has recently written a novel which outlines a similar murder, containing certain details about the slain businessman which were never released to the press. Despite the warnings of his superior (Kati Outinen), Tadek has Kozlow arrested, which inspires the rage of the current police chief, Greger (Robert Wieckiewicz), who had been the original investigating officer at the time. With his marriage to Marta (Agata Kulesza) in shambles, Tadek becomes uncomfortably intertwined with Kozlow after meeting the author’s troubled ex-girlfriend, Kasia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman who used to work in the infamous sex club The Cage, a place frequented by both the dead businessman and Kozlow.

Avranas attempts to make use of casting Jim Carrey against type by allowing nearly all of the morbid comic relief to be generated by a lewd and lascivious Marton Csokas, here in prime over-the-top form as a bitchy, pretentious pulp author who churns out perverse novels which would be loosely defined as torture porn. Unfortunately, Carrey is more of a distraction, especially as we constantly expect him to break his dour, morose expression at every turn for a visual gag or punchline. Instead, he is presented here in dogged, monotonous close-ups, frequently juxtaposed with the sneering Csokas, meant to highlight their opposing personas as mere flip sides of the same coin. Their terse exchanges are impossible to take seriously, as are their shared, aggressive correspondences with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s worn looking Kasia, a drug addicted sexual abuse victim who seems to be playing both sides against the middle. Carrey’s recent tabloid scandals also makes this material seem even more awkwardly perverse.

Laughably, Carrey’s Tadek is supposedly representative of the ‘Old Poland,” the remnant of a dead regime relegated to finish out his term at a dull desk job. As the man dangling the carrot in front of the beleaguered inspector, Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov is saddled with spelling everything out for the audience, while Finnish actor Kati Ouinen (an Aki Kaurismaki regular), offers moments of conviction she can’t overcome due to the silliness of her dialogue. The only major Polish player to be featured repeatedly is a wasted Agata Kulesza as Carrey’s dissatisfied wife, charged with peering out of windows and wearily sighing in every shared sequence where she’s ignored by her husband and daughter. Gainsbourg, looking shabby chic and transfixing despite being made-up to look like bruised fruit, is once more cast as a woman whose sexuality is a problematic intersection of agency and vulnerability, with more degrading moments recalling her similarly suffering protagonist from Lar Von Trier’s two part Nymphomaniac.

While True Crimes begins with the upsetting imagery of women raped and abused within the confines of the sex club The Cage, it quickly becomes a tiresome battle of wills between Carrey and Csokas, a man playing the same game as the iconic fictional sociopath Catherine Tramell of Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. But the magnitude of Tadek’s actions are never properly defined, and paired with the realization concerning the monstrous actions of the murdered businessman, the solely self-serving purposes of a man eager for professional retribution doesn’t allow for anyone to feel invested or moved by his struggle.

With many sequences featuring dark, muted greens, Polish DP Michel Englert (who frequently works with Malgorzata Szumowska as well as on Ari Folman’s The Congress) creates a fittingly brooding visual palette, and when the frames aren’t focused in extreme close-ups of the actors’ faces, Krakow proves to be a beautiful, if foreboding landscape.

Ultimately, True Crimes is narratively on par with the recent True Story (2015) from director Rupert Goold, also adapted from a journalist’s expose of a criminal account with enough compelling details to warrant repeating—but neither manages to convey the human significance or our morbid attraction to such material in their subsequent film versions.

Reviewed on October 12 at the  – 100 Mins. Special Screenings Programme.

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