Mardi Gras Film Festival 2023 Review: Elephant (Słoń) ★★★★

The autumnal landscape of southern Poland shines in writer-director Kamil Krawczycki’s new feature, Elephant (Słoń), adding fresh layers to the familiar tale of a rural young man discovering his sexuality in a homophobic town. 

Bartek (Jan Hrynkiewicz) works multiple jobs to support himself and his mother, looking after their farm animals by day and helping out in a local bar in the evening. When a neighbour on a nearby farm dies, his estranged gay son Dawid (Paweł Tomaszewski) returns to deal with his affairs. While the locals warn Bartek to stay away from Dawid, he can’t help but be drawn to the erudite stranger with piercing blue eyes and an outlook on life that’s unfamiliar to him.

Krawczycki imbues Bartek’s life with a claustrophobic feel, while also revelling in the gorgeous forests around him. Cinematographer Jakub Sztuk fills the frame with rich browns and oranges, coupled with a cold, wet mood. Its small-minded township stirs memories of Brokeback Mountain. This isn’t the grey, urban Poland more often seen on screen, but more like the rural setting of Tomasz Jedrowski’s novel Swimming in the Dark. Krawczycki paints simple but evocative pictures; a river that Bartek’s horse won’t cross; an echoing valley; the two lovers finding privacy in the wide open of nature, away from the watchful gaze of their neighbours.

Krawczycki’s screenplay brings complications for Bartek that make his coming-out more complex than most. While Dawid escaped town to find himself outside the bubble of this community, Bartek is known by everyone. As the family’s only bread winner, he can’t leave his mother alone. Her plans to sell their land so they can expand their stable feel like one more thing tying him to home; stuck between his personal desire for freedom, and his responsibilities to the family.

Homophobia in the community is rife and oppressive, but rarely overt. A neighbour tells Bartek that some gossips have been talking about him, but the word queer left unsaid. She then flips to a euphemism, telling him that she would support him no matter what he was, even if he was a “słoń” (Polish for elephant, giving the film its title). A group of young men taunt him and the tension is palpable. There is a sense of non-stop threat in the village that doesn’t welcome outsiders of any ilk.

Hrynkiewicz excels as Bartek, straddling that awkward age; no longer a boy, not quite a man. He is most at peace with his horse, out on hillsides away from people. In contrast Tomaszewski’s Dawid is complex but warm. His reticent feelings about being back in town contrast with his budding attraction to Bartek. When they are alone, behind closed doors, the film really comes alive. 

Eschewing melodrama and giving moments space to breathe, Krawczycki has crafted a big screen romance that’s calming and familiar without ever slipping into cliché. With its stunning vistas, Elephant (Słoń) is one to catch on the big screen for sure.

By Chad Armstrong

Elephant (Słoń) receives its Sydney Premiere at Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival 2023. Click here for more details and tickets.

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