“Just a normal wedding,” the mother of the bride sniffs more than halfway through Marcin Wrona’s “Demon.” She’s exaggerating a little. By that point in this Polish-set matrimonial horror film, the weather has taken a foul turn, a few guests have come to physical blows and the groom has been confined to the cellar after a series of violent convulsions, which his new in-laws have unsuccessfully tried to dismiss as both an epileptic fit and a bad case of food poisoning.
All in all, you’ve probably been to worse parties. And compared with some of the more memorably disastrous movie weddings of European art-house vintage — Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” and Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” come to mind — “Demon” seems fairly tame genre stuff, its steadily rising tension leavened by occasional jump scares and abundant reserves of dry humor. Even when the groom starts evincing all the signs of being possessed by a dybbuk, that malevolent visitor of Jewish folklore, the hosts think only of keeping their guests drunk and unaware that something is seriously wrong.
The audience, of course, has been steadily clued in from the opening scenes of the remote and rugged Polish countryside, eerily filmed to resemble a bombed-out dystopian landscape (the fine, muted photography is by Pawel Flis).
A man named Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiran) has traveled from London to marry a local woman named Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), and the fact that they haven’t known each other long — they were introduced by Zaneta’s brother, Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt) — seems no impediment to the affection that courses naturally between them.
The action takes place almost entirely on the grounds of Zaneta’s family house, which will become hers and Piotr’s upon their marriage — a wedding gift from the bride’s father (Andrzej Grabowski). It’s a rotten gift. Shortly before the wedding, the groom makes a bizarre discovery on the property, which would be gruesome enough even if it weren’t an unwelcome reminder of the specters of Poland’s past — specters that have now come back to haunt this family in decidedly literal, Yiddish-spouting form.
Skillfully adapted (by Wrona and Pawel Maslona) from Piotr Rowicki’s stage play “Adherence,” “Demon” dramatizes the return of the repressed in sly yet straightforward fashion. Despite the occasional narrative ambiguities, it will take a particularly inattentive audience member to miss the film’s chilling message about the persistence of past sins, particularly the awful legacy of the Nazi crimes perpetrated not terribly long ago on Polish soil.
The fatalism feeds the humor and vice versa; amusing as it is to see the bride’s parents go into damage control mode by pouring on the vodka, it’s astounding to see the sheer cruelty of their indifference — to history, to compassion, to the health and happiness of their new son-in-law. To that end, Tiran undergoes a tremendous metamorphosis in the role of Piotr, enacting one hell of a physical breakdown and later channeling the dybbuk’s tormented spirit with uncanny tenderness and feeling.
A few journalists have suggested parallels between Piotr’s on-screen anguish and the private suffering of the director, Wrona, who died last year while “Demon” was first making the international festival rounds. (The cause of death was ruled a suicide.) I’m loath to jump to any facile conclusions about life imitating art or to speculate about how an artist’s inclination toward darkness might be a gateway to suicidal despair.
Perhaps it’s best to appreciate “Demon” not for what it implies but for what it simply and unmistakably is: A bravura testament to a talent silenced far too soon.
In Polish, English and Yiddish with English subtitles
MPAA rating: R, for language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, Los Angeles