United States of Love review: for love, read misery and unrequited affection

Four women search for love in post-Communist Poland in Tomasz Wasilewski’s bleak but beautiful drama

United States of Love
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Director: Tomasz Wasilewski
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Julia Kijowska, Magdalena Cielecka, Dorota Kolak, Marta Nieradkiewicz, Tomek Tyndyk, Andrzej Chyra
Running Time: 1 hr 45 mins

It’s 1990 in Poland and the Soviet Union collapses, and the characters in this eye-wateringly austere drama can buy hideous contemporaneous jumpers but not – who knew? – love.

With a nod to Ulrich Seidl at his iciest, Tomasz Wasilewski’s slightly lopsided portmanteau concerns four erotically frustrated women. Agata (Julia Kijowska) nurses a baffling – and all-consuming – obsession with the local priest; the impeccably-presented school headmistress Iza (Magdalena Cielecka) has had a years-long affair with a married doctor who has lost all interest in their relationship now that his wife has died. Iza’s sister Marzena (Marta Nieradkiewicz) is a former beauty queen and an unobtainable object of desire for middle-aged Renata (Dorota Kolak), a teacher whose services are rudely dispensed with.

Sex, when it happens, is desperate and ugly: the least fun you can have with your clothes off. The women are united only in misery and unrequited affection, a theme that is not quite enough to coerce several powerful scenes into the shape of a movie. Inevitably, and despite sterling efforts from the central female quartet, certain narrative strands are more compelling than others. Iza’s story is mesmerising agony; Renata’s putters along to no real avail.

Adding to the overall distress is the Romanian DOP Oleg Mutu, who shot Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days and Beyond the Hills. Here, his relentlessly boxed cinematography makes 4 Months feel like John Ford in CinemaScope by comparison. The effect is suffocating. It's a magnificent achievement, but it's seldom pleasant to behold.

We can think of several things wrong with that title.