AFED #90: Seksmisja [Sexmission] (Poland, 1984); Dir. Juliusz Machulski

I mentioned Sexmission in passing a few weeks back as an example of how films can be massively popular in their country of original yet comparatively unknown elsewhere. A few years back it was adjudged to be the best film of the last thirty years by Polish filmgoers, much to the bemusement of more highbrow critics.

Sexmission is a sci-fi comedy; a sub-genre that proved surprisingly successful in eastern bloc during the communist era, as evidenced by such works as the cult Czech film Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea. Yet far from being an anomaly it makes perfect sense; science fiction - particularly that of the more dystopian variety - is often a means of commenting allegorically on the current milieu and dressing it in humour is a means of deflecting criticisms of being overtly political.

Which is precisely how Sexmission operates; serving up a lampoon on the absurdities of totalitarianism which would have resonated strongly at the time and the skewed nostalgia for which may account for its enduring popularity.

The story is a simple one, used many times over the years but with obvious similarities to Woody Allen's Sleeper. Max (Jerzy Stuhr) and Albert (Olgierd Łukaszewicz) are two thirtysomething men who volunteer to take part in a pioneering experiment in suspended animation. The idea is that they'll be revived three years later, but naturally things don't go according to plan and instead they awaken more than fifty years later into a post-apocalyptic subterranean society in which the male of the species has been completely eradicated.

A chilling scenario it may be but also of course every heterosexual man's secret fantasy; a world bereft of all competition and where the women disrobe with nonchalant regularity. Unfortunately for Max and Albert men aren't particularly popular in this brave new totalitarian world and moves are made to 'naturalise' them through gender reassignment. Inevitably they make a run for it, a la Logan's Run.

There are plenty of broad laughs along the way, from synthetic food (eggs that have to be unscrewed rather than cracked open) to copious nudity. In the west, where we're a little more accustomed to irony and satire, the comedy can see a little self-conscious and obvious but one should remember that more insidious humour was frowned upon behind the iron curtain and consequently slapstick became the prevalent form.

However, the film is very clearly parodying the political climate of that period and in a way that suggests that, in the mid-eighties, the tide of liberalism was gathering momentum. Yes, it can be viewed as a critique of the prudish excesses of feminism, but the knockabout chauvinism more than neuters this. The principal target is the totalitarian state and the way it blithely rewrites and streamlines history to suit its purposes. Hence the women of the future are under the misapprehension that Pandora's Box is 'Pandor's Box' and that Einstein was female.

The most interesting scenes come in the last quarter as our heroes discover that all is not quite as it seems; pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard (writer/director Machulski's debt to Oz is obvious) and facade of ideological propaganda. Like much of what's preceded it's by no means the most innovative but delivered with more than enough fun and enthusiasm to compensate.


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