“I’m not good at describing my films.” says the lead character in Mariusz Wilczyński’s maudlin but strangely riveting animation Kill It and Leave This Town. The Polish writer-director’s style is certainly a challenge to define. The drawing has a crude, old-fashioned charm but his subject matter is startling and often surreal, as horror, humor and nostalgia overlap. When it’s messy, it’s deliberately so: the artist spent 11 years on this, his first — and strongly autobiographical — feature.
Wilczyński provides the voice of his protagonist Mariuszek, who drifts through scenes in the life of his parents, now deceased. These range from the apparently trivial to the disturbingly significant. One of the most memorable scenes is a juxtaposition of the two. A man and a woman casually swat flies and discuss their childhoods, before they are revealed to be attending to a dead body: that of Mariuszek’s mother. As they speak, the focus moves to a graphic depiction of her genitalia, which is sewn up, presumably in preparation for burial. The film edges into horror territory at regular intervals, but this is perhaps its most horrific moment, as Wilczyński unflinchingly faces the deeply unpleasant facts of death, while paying tribute to the body that gave him birth.
Two sentences in the film come close to summarizing its intent. “Everyone who has gone, has gone. They haven’t died, they’re still alive in my imagination, including my parents, to this day.” It’s a touching sentiment that will ring true with anyone who has ever dreamt about a dead relative. The filmmaker invites us to spend time with his loved ones and a small cast of curious characters, whether we are watching them dance in a bar, chop a fish or fall into a hysterical state of anxiety when their husband fails to phone home. The cast of voice actors provide strong work, their tone often contrasting with Wilczyński’s own knowingly downbeat style.
If Kill It and Leave This Town starts to feel a little self-indulgent, it’s forgivably so. While this is an openly personal piece of work, many of its themes have a universal resonance: memories, loss, pain, aging and the general absurdity of life. The film’s dark humor also takes the edge off its melancholia. Some comedy is surreal and symbolic: after an early fish-chopping scene, human heads are sliced off by a figure revealed to be… a fish. In a lighter moment, a customer flatters a distracted shopkeeper about her new perm, tactically reassuring her in the hope of being served. Visual exposition is deft: as Mariuszek’s mother lies ill in bed, a sketchy picture hanging on the wall depicts a man with a halo, instantly informing us that her husband has passed.
This scene is also one of the most touching: it’s the one where Mariuszek struggles to explain his film to his mother — the film that we are now watching. But instead of describing it, he has spent 11 years making it. And no doubt, he has shown it to her in his imagination.