In the movies, as a rule, family vacations go wrong far more often than they go right: We may crave rest and relaxation when we travel, but it’s less interesting to watch others do the same. Rarely, however, have a few days at the beach degenerated quite so tensely and toxically as they do in “Fucking Bornholm,” a dark, distinctly unrelaxing comedy from Poland that mines male abuse, entitlement and ennui for laughs that all come with an accompanying wince — whilst aligning its sympathies firmly with a put-upon wife and mother, superbly played by Agnieszka Grochowska, trying and sometimes failing to keep it all together. A less abrasive provocation than its confrontational title might suggest, writer-director Anna Kazejak’s precise, piquant film deserves wider festival exposure and discerning distributor interest following its international premiere in the main Karlovy Vary competition.
With its coolly arch comic tone, neat formal composure and flourishes of orchestral scoring to accompany proceedings of escalating awkwardness and emotional injury, “Fucking Bornholm” is likely to put many arthouse patrons in mind of Swedish iconoclast Ruben Östlund — in particular, his breakout feature “Force Majeure,” which covered comparable thematic terrain of masculine absence and irresponsibility in the bourgeois family unit. Kazejak’s film is distinguished, however, by an overtly feminist perspective that remains resolutely unambiguous in its sympathy for the women who must nurture, placate and, through gritted teeth, tolerate the flailing men in their lives: Even when it comes to their own trangressions, there’s little in the way of gendered both-sides-ism here, making “Fucking Bornholm” an emphatic scream into the patriarchal void.
With relatively economical dialogue — pithy sidelong remarks and sharp, fleeting glares count for a lot here — Kazejak and co-writer Filip K. Kasperaszek sketch out a slightly fraught history between the four adult principals: middle-class married couple Maja (Grochowska) and Hubert (Maciej Stuhr), their old college pal Dawid (Grzegorz Damiecki) and his recently acquired, much younger girlfriend Nina (Jasmina Polak), all introduced en route to a camping trip on the tranquil Danish island of Bornholm, with three pre-teen boys (two of them Maja and Hubert’s, one Dawid’s) in tow. The trip has long been an annual tradition for the three older adults, with Nina an ill-fitting substitute for Dawid’s ex-wife — an invisible figure with whom Maja is quick to side when the conversation turns against her. Privately, Hubert instructs Maja to bond with the college-age newbie (“You should help her integrate”), while making scant effort to do so himself: Making people get along, it seems, is women’s work.
The trip begins, then, on a shaky footing, not helped by fractious contretemps with the neighboring Danish caravaners who have swiped their reserved camping spot. (English is the lingua franca between the Scandinavian locals and our Polish holidaymakers, and rarely a friendly one.) But it’s the children, eventually, who throw matters entirely off-balance, as Maja and Hubert’s youngest son Eryk (Oliwier Grzegorzewski) withdraws from the other two boys, seemingly plagued by unspoken trauma — and an anxiously attentive Maja suspects that something appalling has happened between them.
She’s right, it turns out, but can’t get her jocular, self-involved husband to handle the situation with the seriousness it merits, while Dawid’s attempts to wrap things up with glib inter-family powwows don’t remedy things either. She has more of an ally in Nina, but bristles against what she sees as touchy-feely pop psychology in response to a crisis that requires more punitive parental decisions. Gradually, the grownups’ immature discord expands to open admissions of marital discontent, long-held personal resentments and wider ideological disagreements — as Maja concludes that hers is the only judgment she can trust. “You keep telling me you have no time for yourself, but if you really wanted to, you’d find it,” Hubert condescendingly chides his wife early on, blind to the uneven distribution of domestic and emotional labor in this fraying partnership. No prizes for guessing that when she finally decides to find that time, he doesn’t like it one bit.
Kazejak tracks this devolving civility through pinched incidental conversations and more elaborately combative setpieces, the tone of conflict shifting from amusing snippiness to ugly social embarrassment from which no punchline can be salvaged. Occasionally, “Fucking Bornholm” skirts sitcom-esque cliché in its portrayal of characters masking deeper rage with happy-families politesse, but more often it cuts impressively close to the bone — not least in its portrayal of children turning to wounding dysfunctional behavior in the wake of their parents’ unhappiness.
Often using the island’s soft magic-hour lighting as a cruel counterpoint to wintry interior states, DP Jakub Stolecki’s crisp, collected compositions often slice right through this warring collective, drawing lines of battle almost literally in the sand. When Maja, temporarily adrift from her family, seeks solace in a bluff, kindly local, the camera seemingly lets her breathe for the first time. “So this is your famous hygge,” she remarks drily, drawing one of the film’s biggest laughs: That much-hyped Scandi aura of cozy comfort and togetherness has no place here.
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