Jerzy Sladkowski’s documentary Bitter Love is a hopeful ode to the power of human contact

In a period marked by social distancing, veteran Polish director Jerzy Sladkowski’s latest work is a surprising meditation on the importance of relationships.

8 May 2020

Set among the confines of the Russian cruise ship, Maxim Gorky, Jerzy Sladkowski’s Bitter Love documents a varied cast of elderly passengers as they drift down the Volga river.

Cushioned in this small microcosm of affordable luxury, many are looking for new beginnings and taking stock of their past before trying to move forward, a reappraising eye often trained on their own relationships. Sladkowski believes that the cruise ship carries a powerful symbolic significance — it represents “comfortable isolation, an exotic environment, time pressure, the taste of the unknown and emotional gambling.” For those trapped amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, it is also a fitting metaphor, with enforced isolation creating a world where the past is seen as idyllic, the present seems eternally hopeless or overwhelming, and there may be little or no space for future plans. In this context, Sladkowski’s film comes as a surprising ode to the importance of social contact — and opens a different kind of reflection on the development of our new temporality.

As the film progresses, we follow the elderly passengers’ attempts to feel young again, with many seeking love, friendship, affection or, at least, genuine human warmth. During intimate conversations on the boat’s deck or while sipping cups of tea, they gradually disclose to each other a past made of regrets, toxic relationships, broken dreams, and nostalgia for the “good old days”. Sladkowski adopts an observational approach, and the camera gets incredibly close to his subjects, both physically and emotionally. The film is made of several smaller, varied storylines, but all of them have in common a certain dose of tenderness and disenchantment. In parallel, we can occasionally sneak into the lives (and rehearsals) of some young musicians, who are tasked to entertain the older passengers and enjoy the freedom and independence typical of their age, perhaps to the same extent their guests did in their golden years.

“I look for extraordinary protagonists among ordinary people, who struggle with their life obstacles daily. I listen to their stories until I find the right one”

“It’s always easier being alone. Because you only have yourself to look after,” admits one of the boys during a chat with two of his colleagues. In Bitter Love, the old/young dialectic seems to mirror effectively the pre- and post-pandemic human attitudes: today, liberties and opportunities that have always been taken from granted are not so obvious anymore and, therefore, the characters’ dialogues assume more profound, timely meanings than they would have had in a coronavirus-free world.

Born in Radom, Sladkowski has proven to be an acute observer of Russia’s socio-political reality over his 40-year career, making documentaries such as Don Juan (2015), Vodka Factory (2010), and Bästisar (2006). Like many of his previous films, Sladkowski’s creative effort on Bitter Love began with the search for the right characters, which an approach he says always precedes any potential thematic or aesthetic choice. “I do not think in terms of themes. I focus on characters instead, since human beings and their stories fascinate me,” he says. “I look for extraordinary protagonists among ordinary people, who struggle with their life obstacles daily. I listen to their stories until I find the right one, though this is rarely a full tale.”

A still from Jerzy Sladkowski’s Bitter Love

Sladkowski is often inspired by such simple hints: he decided to follow one of the couples onboard after overhearing a woman telling her male companion that she hated his beard. “It was the only comment she made about their 21-year relationship when we first met!” says Sladkowski. “I define these types of comments as openers. That statement gives you an introduction to her nature, namely that of a loving fighter,” he says.

This kind of character search is, of course, time-consuming — it will often take Sladkowski a year or even longer. On this occasion, however, the director managed to shoot his film in 21 days. “It is all about socialising, opening up, and eliminating the barriers between the characters and the crew,” Sladkowski explains. “Playing God is not an option for me. The characters must become a part of the crew. Therefore, the main task is to get to the characters as close as possible.”

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On the contrary, the real research process begins when the crew meets the characters. For Sladkowski and his team, shooting is its own kind of “discovery trip”. “We learn things piece by piece, getting closer and closer to our protagonists. It is fascinating to see how the initial plans, the treatment, the script, the director’s comments, and all of this stuff fade away during the making. I am always ready to catch what happens unexpectedly in front of us, during the take. Bitter Love is a good example of this approach.”

The usage of several musical interludes, which play a crucial role throughout the narration were also not planned in advance. “We met the pianist and the singer on the ship during our first night at the bar. We knew Jura [one of the passengers] played guitar and used to sing some country ballads, but he was never meant to play such a big role,” says Sladkowski. “Then, together with the other passengers, we listened to his songs and we couldn’t let him stop. The pianist and the singer gave two concerts each day. There were other musicians on board too. From the first day, we were surrounded by different kinds of music. Naturally, music became an integral part of the film.”

This reliance on natural chemistry and characters meant that finding the right crew and creating a sort of family environment was an essential part of Sladkowski’s project. The choice of setting the entire film on the Maxim Gorky was initially due to simple chance: they were the only cruise company that agreed to let the team have access to the deck throughout the journey. It was down to the crew to create the atmosphere of trust that they needed.

A still from Jerzy Sladkowski’s Bitter Love

“We know and like each other. There is trust, respect, and recognition of one’s talents. We did not talk much during the shooting, but before we start filming we discuss what we were looking for, what our options are, who the characters are, and what we should expect from them,” says Sladkowski.

“I believe that the crew’s creative contribution is the foundation of successful documentary filmmaking,” he adds. All in all, Sladkowski believes that listening to others — and capturing that truth on film — can teach us something important in this difficult time. “I hope that by seeing other people’s struggles, we can learn something important about ourselves,” he says. “Do whatever you can not to screw it up, be it love or friendship, whenever you find it. Personally, I got a painful reminder concerning my own emotional fortunes and misfortunes but, what the hell, as long as the ship sails, there is hope.”

Bitter Love was produced by Antonio Russo Merenda for Sweden’s Ginestra Film, Ulla Simonen for Finland’s Made, and Lucyina Kowalska for Poland’s Ragusa Film. The documentary was world-premiered online during Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, which exceptionally ran until 30 April, with some of its selected titles made available internationally.

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