Stories about first sexual experiences are somewhat ubiquitous in indie cinema. Typically, though, these films center on adolescent or young adult protagonists: coming-of-age tales that focus on the transition into adulthood as they deal with their own burgeoning sexuality.
Tadeusz Łysiak’s Oscar-shortlisted narrative, Sukienka (The Dress), subverts that notion, telling a familiar narrative via a new framework. In this case, the story is centered on a woman of short stature named Julia. She longs for closeness and physical intimacy despite not being seen as a sexual being. So, while she is sexually inexperienced, she’s also not young and naive…in fact she’s the opposite, stoic and hardened by an environment that has rejected her.
Like Matrin Edralin’s acclaimed short, Hole, The Dress is very much interested in exploring the idea of loneliness and isolation through the lens of a person who society has deemed isn’t a sexual object. I don’t want to make this write-up entirely about the protagonist’s dwarfism, but it’s clearly a vital aspect of what makes this film so effective and interesting. After all, female sexual frustration isn’t necessarily a new topic…neither is prejudice or public cruelty (in fact, I found the mistreatment of Julia by random bystanders to be this film’s weakest and most on-the-nose attribute). But, it’s the specificity into which the film dives into this character—into her routine, her public and private life—that makes it so universally compelling. The simple act of buying adult “date clothes” is an ordeal (the dress which informs the film’s title). The emotional weight of the film is carried by a terrific performance from Anna Dzieduszycka, who is able to convey a deeply lived-in interior struggle to this character.
Despite the piece’s runtime, I’d argue it never feels slow and boring: the film’s scenes build on one another and we really do start to care about Julia…we hope she can finally have her first meaningful sexual encounter when a handsome truck driver appears in her life. But, alas…this is a 30-minute European festival drama, where happy endings are practically an impossibility, and thus, the film’s intense and disturbing dramatic climax practically feels inevitable. It’s unsettling to watch and yet, despite its predictability and as much as I tend to be disinterested in “misery for misery’s sake” on screen, I can’t deny that it still hit me in the gut. It’s visceral and left me shaken, especially as it reveals the unconscionable amounts of evil that are often hidden throughout the world just waiting to be exposed.
Visually, the film belies its student film roots. The cinematography is strong and I appreciate how Łysiaks’s camera never frames Julia in a way that feels like it’s gawking at her height. We are always looking at her eye-level, impartial observers to how she sees the world.
After winning the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival, The Dress was shortlisted for the 94th Academy Awards. Łysiaks is currently working on his feature film debut, a Polish psychological thriller that is in pre-production.