If you got higher than you’ve ever been in your whole life and then tried to draw all of your childhood memories on a series of Post-It Notes, the results might look a little something like Mariusz Wilczyński’s “Kill It and Leave This Town,” a psychotropic vision quest through the animator’s own past that blurs the living and the dead into a bittersweet orgy of squiggles and undefinable sadness. So lo-fi that it makes Don Hertzfeldt look like Walt Disney, Wilczyński’s hallucinatory opus appears as if sketched out in about 15 minutes, but its autodidactic writer/director actually worked on the film for more than 15 years; the process took so long that several of Wilczyński’s collaborators died along the way, including composer Tadeusz Nalepa and the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda (who recorded a brief voice performance).
In that light, perhaps the best and most important thing that can be said about this crude slipstream of a movie is that it gradually convinces you that it couldn’t have been made any faster — that Wilczyński needed every day of distance between then and now to show us his past the way that he remembers it.
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“I simply don’t believe in death,” Wilczyński’s unflatteringly drawn avatar explains at some point, the filmmaker’s massive head of curled hair crowding the frame like a grotesque caricature of Sideshow Bob. “Everyone who’s gone is gone. But they’re not dead. They’re simply alive in my imagination.” And what an imagination it is. The Łódź of his youth is reborn as a sordid fantasia of run-on recollections in which the local tram runs through a constant night, fish heads bob through the ceilings as the walls turn into water, and a cat-man in a trench coat rants about annihilation on a street corner.
It begins with the red flicker of a cigarette in a dark room, and at first it feels like a lucid nightmare: The nonlinear structure calls attention to the ghoulish details, like the way the vain woman who runs the butcher shop has fingers sharp as knives, or how the skin on the face of Wilczyński’s mother has curdled into something awful. One scene begins with two hands sewing a vagina closed, and it’s almost a relief when the camera zooms out to reveal that the parts belong to different bodies (a morgue worker and a corpse, respectively).
Over time, however, Wilczyński’s meandering reminiscences start to become strangely comforting. Maybe it’s the consistent gloominess, or the cocoon-like embrace of the film’s sleepy reliance on anachronism, which insists that nothing will go wrong because nothing ever has gone wrong. “If it weren’t for you, I’d be someone else,” Wilczyński concludes during a moment of great regret. Later, a nostalgic sequence of a night at sea is interrupted by the lights of cell phone screens — dancing couples peer over the sides of their various ships as they record videos of a giant nude Wilczyński wading through the ocean like a wayward Godzilla. It’s as if different planes of existence are colliding together at an unsolvable crossroads, and those menacing cigarette embers are an inextinguishable flame of life.
Emblematic of what the Berlinale hopes to showcase with its new “Encounters” section (described by the festival as “a platform aiming to foster aesthetically and structurally daring works from independent, innovative filmmakers”), “Kill It and Leave This Town” is almost oppressively personal at times. Hideously seductive as it can be, the movie is so isolated inside the contours of Wilczyński’s mind that it’s hard to imagine what audience might exist for it. Then again, what beauty is there in this world that isn’t alive in our heads — if nowhere else — and trying to escape? A fitting non-sequitur to end things: A man sits at the beach and delights in solving a crossword puzzle that had vexed him in private. “It was worth going to school,” he smiles.
“Kill it and Leave this Town” premiered at the 2020 Berlinale. It is currently seeking U.S.distribution