“Behind the Blue Door,” featured in Ann Arbor’s Polish Film Festival, is a beautiful meditation on what happens to a child in a coma. Young Lukasz (first-time actor Dominik Kowalczyk) and his single mother (Magdalena Niec, “Immensity of Justice”) crash into a truck on their way to vacation. In the slow motion shot of their car flipping off the road, first-time director Mariusz Palej establishes the close bond between mother and son as well as a mystical tone. When the windshield shatters as if of its own volition, Palej also sets the stage for majestic cinematography that never fails to awe.
Lukasz dreams he wakes with a badly injured knee and the news that his mother is in a coma. His neighbor, Ms. Cybulska (Teresa Lipowska, “Tato”), serves as a temporary guardian until Lukasz’s estranged aunt abruptly arrives to claim custody. Aunt Agata (Ewa Blaszczyk, “Nothing Funny”) takes Lukasz to High Cliff, an inn in a remote part of Poland where Agata and Lukasz’s mother used to live together. She instructs Lukasz on one unbreakable rule: always knock. The two alternate between heated arguments and tender moments of reconciliation as they attempt to adjust to the unexpected situation.
Blaszczyk and Kowalczyk handle this emotional juggling act with ease, delivering stunning performances that transcend language barriers and the clunky obstacle of subtitles. “Behind the Blue Door” even manages to convey the bravery and past of a character (Lukasz’s absent father) through one memory and two objects: a knife and an old military jacket. This character feels complete thanks to Kowalczyk’s ability to present an emotional connection between his character and the two objects his aunt gives him. As Lukasz stumbles around rural Poland wishing to return to Warsaw and help his mother, the ever-present military jacket and knife provide a constant reminder of the parent he already lost and the one he fears he will never see again.
The role possessions play in remembering a loved one reoccurs in “Behind the Blue Door.” When Aunt Agata receives the items from Lukasz’s old apartment, which the bank has seized, he accuses her of moving on and losing hope. In the grand scheme of comas, possessions are important to serve as a link to the real world that slips away more and more as the days pass. After this argument with his aunt, Lukasz retreats to his mother’s former room. Out of frustration, he bangs on the blue door from the inside until the wood rings like a gong and reveals a magical world. This world showcases special effects the film’s producers brag have never been seen before in a Polish film.
The animations are truly breathtaking, from magical birds to mushroom-shaped trees and a special dust that creates a state of wonder. “Behind the Blue Door” proves a film does not need Hollywood resources to become a special effects masterpiece. Lukasz wanders through this mysterious place, eventually meeting a frightening monster called the Entrailor. In exchange for temporarily fixing his knee, the Entrailor demands Lukasz take a piece of his thread back to the real world. When Lukasz returns, the thread multiplies and possesses Aunt Agata who attempts to capture Lukasz. This serves as a smart analogy to the nature of comas. The way the small string threatens to consume and trap Lukasz in this other world parallels his body’s fight to escape its unconscious state.
“Behind the Blue Door” is based on Marcin Szczygielski’s novel of the same name. Szczygielski was inspired by his own daughter’s fight to escape a coma. His personal experiences and honesty enables the film to avoid exploitation and instead deliver emotional weight. The pain a parent feels when they’re unable to help their child comes across when Lukasz’s mother reveals all the stories she told to break Lukasz free. Lukasz recognises the memories of Agata, High Cliff and his missing father, which guided him through the scary void of his coma. Those memories feel authentic to Lukasz, leaving the viewer to contemplate the terrifying unknowns of a coma: What is real, and what is not?