Ether

Eter (2018)

Ether (2018)

Written and directed by Krzysztof Zanussi.

This is the latest release from Polish auteur, Krzysztof Zanussi and is an interesting, and at times, quite disturbing watch.

Without spoiling the movie – all this happens in the first 10 minutes – this is a retelling of the Faust story, starring Jacek Ponidzialek as a doctor totally committed to science, who is experimenting with ether in early 20th century Russia. When one of his experiments (and attempted rape) goes wrong and the subject dies, he is sentenced to hang. This is commuted at the last moment to exile and he ends up as doctor to a garrison in the remote edges of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Here the doctor continues to experiment and be fascinated by ether and its effect on his subjects.

The big takeaway for me was how beautiful this movie is and how that is juxtaposed by the doctor’s increasing fascination with control and his spiral into madness. DoP Piotr Niemyjski has done stunning work here, as have Production Designer Joanna Macha and Costume Designer Katarzyna Lewinska. The visuals are simply sumptuous and framed in many instances like a painting. This also offsets some of the more grisly aspects of the film and the increasing tension as Europe heads towards WW1.

However, this takes risks with the narrative that I’m not sure a lot of 21st century audiences will get. For me, the doctor becomes too much a mad scientist and a thoroughly unappealing lead I felt no sympathy for. While this is no fault of Ponidzialek who does well with what he’s given and brings moments of complexity, my lack of sympathy made me feel increasingly distanced from the film – I was never truly immersed in it as I have been with some of Zannusi’s earlier works (in particular the 2000 release Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease). And I found the ending a little over-blown and unnecessary – I’d already worked out who was pulling the strings – but maybe that goes over the heads of people not familiar with Goethe.

It’s flawed and some of the risks don’t pay off but I’d always rather watch something that dares to take a chance. For the cinematography alone, this is certainly worth watching.

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