Marcin Wrona’s Polish language drama Demon begs the question: who is really possessed by a dybbuk (Jewish demon). Is it the groom, who discovers her buried skeletal remains on the eve of his wedding, or the throng of wedding-goers who become so lubricated and blurred by the amount of drink and dance that their bodies contort and stumble around in the same frenetic manner as the invaded groom? Either way, Wrona’s insidious tale ably reveals either answer is correct.
Taking place largely against the backdrop of a long night’s wedding party, Piotr (Itay Tiran) arrives in Poland from England where he’s been carrying on a long distance relationship with fiance Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewski). The instability and unease immediately rears its ugly head when, on his slow boat ride in to meet Zaneta’s father (Andrzey Grabowski), he witnesses an out-of-control and screaming woman being led ashore by paramedics. Their eyes meet and the atmosphere is firmly established (yet never explained) that Piotr is entering an especially volatile sense of place.
Weary of his new son-in-law, the father establishes his alpha male pose, presenting Piotr with a carefully scheduled timetable of the wedding. As if he weren’t nervous enough about the step he’s about to take, Polish tradition and pride are forced upon him. It’s a theme that’s revisited several times throughout the film.
It’s only when Piotr has a few quiet moments alone at Zaneta’s decrepit family home later that night when he accidentally stumbles upon the aforementioned skeletal remains. As the next day progresses, Piotr finds himself slowly invaded by something sinister, beginning with nose bleeds and soon transforming him into an epileptic, tongue-speaking cipher at the confused sake of the large wedding party assembled for him.
In the hands of writer-director Wrona, Demon doesn’t achieve its shocks through grandstand set pieces or in-your-face theatrics. Unlike Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) or my personal favorite high water mark for terror, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Demon works on a more basic level.
One example comes when, trying to calm Piotr after exhibiting an especially violent episode at his wedding party, the core group trying to maintain sanity and normalcy at the party, retreats to the house’s basement to diagnose him. The doctor (Adam Woronowicz) momentarily drops his needle full of sedative and a frail, pale arm gently hands it back to him from underneath the bed. His face registers acknowledgment at the unexplained act, but continues on with trying to calm Piotr. It’s this type of eerily composed moment that suffuses Demon with diminutive but unsettling force.
It’s also an expressly political film in the way it peppers the group with a wide swath of personalities. Acting like a microcosm of Polish society, Zaneta’s mother and father empirically try to maintain law and quiet order on the party. When all hell is breaking loose, its especially mordant how the father orders his son Jazny (Tomasz Schuchardt) to bring all the vodka reservoirs into the party in order to make everyone drink and forget the reality of their situation. The priest (Cezary Kosinski), at first inquisitive of young Piotr’s transition, is quickly shuttered and sent away like a collaborative nobody. Denying actual names for any its characters outside of three or four people, Wrona demonstrates the cumulative effect of old regimes pressing their superiority on its youth.
Slowly forgotten from the narrative as it goes along, Itay Tiran portrays Piotr in a muscular and expressive manner, constantly gleaning with sweat and fighting with his own body. He exhibits a live-wire performance that, coupled with the obfuscated explanations that Demon eventually tries to deliver, remains in the mind long after the film ends. It’s not hard to imagine him being the half-naked, screaming person that another visitor the very next day would encounter on his or her boat ride into town. Or maybe it’s the perfect ending to the world’s worst wedding.
Demon opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area today (Friday, October 7) at the Dallas Angelika.