Kinoteka Polish Film Festival: The Art of Loving: The Story of Michalina Wisłocka Review
In Communist-era Poland of the 1970s, Michalina Wisłocka was very much an advocate for greater openness about sexual matters. Her book The Art of Loving (Sztuka Kochania – translated into English as A Practical Guide to Marital Bliss) sold seven million copies. Written by Krzysztof Rak and directed by Maria Sadowska, The Art of Loving: The Story of Michalina Wisłocka (Sztuka Kochania: Historia Michaliny Wisłockiej) brings her story to the cinema screen.
The film follows two timelines. In the seventies Michalina (Magdalena Boczarska) makes repeated attempts to have the book published, in the face of much opposition. Firstly, the sexual explicitness is an issue. Then: similar books already exist, so why does Poland need another one? (Those were all written by men, none by a woman.) And Michalina's own morals are called into question.
Alongside this, we follow Michalina's life story, beginning in 1939, when she and her close friend Wanda (Justyna Wasilewska) first meet Stach (Piotr Adamczyk). There's a definite attraction on all sides, and not just because in their first sight of him he's swimming nude in a lake. By the time World War II is over, the three of them are living in what would now be called a polyamorous relationship. This results in both women bearing a child by Stach around the same time, Michalina a girl and Wanda a boy. For propriety's sake the two children are passed off as twins born to Michalina and Wanda is their “aunt”. When this relationship implodes – Stach being quite unable remain faithful – Michalina meets Jurek (Eryk Lubos). While this is going on, Michalina trains as a doctor and makes it her mission better to educate her countrymen and especially countrywomen in matters sexual. Her book is the result.
Magdalena Boczarska plays her role throughout and while she's clearly a little too old for the earliest flashback scenes (when Michalina is her late teens), she's very convincing later on, even in the later scenes when Michalina is in her fifties. (Boczarska was in her late thirties at the time this film was made.) It's a fine performance. It's backed up by solid work from the supporting cast, but it's Boczarska's show. At the time of writing she has been shortlisted for the 2018 Polish Film Award for Best Actress. Interview footage of the real Michalina Wisłocka is shown during the end credits, and shows how much Boczarska has been made to physically resemble her – not always the case with biopics. Michalina Wisłocka died in 2005 at the age of eighty-three.
Maria Sadowska's previous film and debut feature, Women's Day (Dzień kobiet, 2012) told a present-day story of a woman's battles in a man's world, and The Art of Loving does the same, on a larger scale and in a historical setting. The film is well-paced and has a light touch, and a refreshingly frank but matter-of-fact approach to its subject matter - though keeping within the bounds of a BBFC 15 certificate - that's in the spirit of the woman whose story it is.
The Art of Loving: The Story of Michalina Wisłocka shows on 11 March at 8pm at the Regent Street Cinema, London, as part of the 16th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, and is followed by a Q & A with Maria Sadowska. It is due a UK cinema release on a date to be advised.