“Irina Palm” – No laughing matter

You might recall an idiotic film that came out some ten years ago called “Sister Act.” The hackneyed premise of this film had Whoopi Goldberg playing a Las Vegas showgirl who had to pose as a nun. Hilarity and madcap hijinx, of course, ensued.

“Irina Palm,” a new film by Sam Garbarski and featuring Marianne Faithfull (famous for her affiliations with Mick Jagger and the Velvet Underground), if taken objectively, is a film with exactly the opposite premise: a woman with a cloistered life in a depressing British suburb is thrust into the sleazy world of the sex trade to earn enough cash to save her dying grandson. Whoopi comes out of her convent adventure with a reawakened spirituality, Faithful experiences a sexual reawakening giving anonymous men hand jobs. And here all comparisons between the two films abruptly end.One can easily imagine how “Irina Palm” might have been a dreadful film. If indeed Whoopi Goldberg had been cast in the lead role and the director had wanted to put a slapstick spin on everything, the issues which are given serious treatment here could have easily vanished behind some cheap gags. But Garbarski has subtler and more ambiguous intentions here, and the actors are of such high quality that none of these characters ever fall into caricature.

No doubt there is something problematic about the presentation of the sex industry here. Generally speaking, women do not become employed in sex parlors because they are in search of their own erotic satisfaction; nor do they find true love in the person of their kind-hearted employer (here played by the outstanding Miki Monojlovic, who was also one of the main protagonists in Emir Kusterica’s “Underground”).

Some viewers will no doubt take offense at Garbarski’s painting the sex trade in such fairy-tale colors, and to some extent they will be right. Ultimately, however, his “Sexy World” (the shop where the protagonist works) is being portrayed as the contemporary 50-something woman’s only recourse in a society that will not employ her anywhere else, and her only flight from the stifling hell of British suburbia. The sex shop also provides Garbarski with ample opportunity to show how little control over their own lives older women are given

When he finds out about his mother’s new occupation Faithfull’s son becomes irrational and abusive, even forcing his mother to quit, in spite of the fact that the job is a sacrifice for his own son’s health. And so in spite of its sentimentalizing of a vulgar business, “Irina Palm” has a great deal to say that is feminist in its outlook. It is also self-reflexive in an interesting way.

Much as Faithfull’s character rediscovers emotional depth and sentimentality through obscenity, the film itself seems to posit the vulgarity of its subject matter as a license to be sentimental. Nothing much happens on the “date” between the professional hand-job-giver and the sex-shop owner, but the dialogue that takes place between them would not have been out of place in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Paradoxically, “Irina Palm” even sometimes comes across as a somewhat old-fashioned film. The important difference being: whereas previously pretexts needed to be invented to show risque subject matter in a film, now it is sentimentality that needs justification – and in this case through risque material.
“Irina Palm” is now showing at the Pod Baranami Cinemas on Rynek Glowny.

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