The little-known world of Polish exploitation cinema is breaking out globally. Botocks made £1 million in the UK. Let’s try to understand how…
It’s not often I’m initially lost for words, but having sat through a film as oddball as Botoks, I think it’s an entirely justified standpoint. A film set in and around a Polish hospital, where pratfalls can give way to abortion sequences, followed up by multiple scenes covering the kinds of things Poles might put up their bottoms – well. How are you meant to react? Laugh? Laugh sometimes, and yet feel deeply moved by the ratcheting maternal crises which seem to overtake every woman of childbearing age here? Not to mention the fact that the film claims to be ‘inspired by real events,’ the mind boggles. And yet, for all that, I kind of want to recommend this film to everyone.
We start in an impoverished bit of Warsaw where two adult children are raising a glass to their late mother – with their father, who is drunk, and who decides to wander across the street to get more vodka. He’s then comedically run over and, as his equally refreshed children watch him slip away, they decide that they’d like to train as paramedics some day. Move forward a few years, and Darek (Tomasz Oswiecinski) and sister Daniela (Olga Boladz) have, amazingly, done just that. Theirs is a strange lot: bestiality, suicides and an abundance of sexual mishaps punctuate their working days now. When Daniela has one of her own mishaps, getting pregnant by another paramedic, she realises she’ll have to find herself a more lucrative career.
Meanwhile, in the same hospital, doctor Magda (Katarzyna Warnke) is delivering live abortions and pondering the propriety of it, Dr Beata (Agnieszka Dygant) is getting over a motorcycle accident which nearly killed her and has put her would-be husband in a coma, so she decides to donate her eggs and undergo IVF, oh and cancer surgeon Patrycja (Marieta Zukowska) is working for a corrupt boss while her husband has openly started an affair with her best friend because he doesn’t like the look of her nethers. After this point, several of the women have babies, at least one of them becomes a plastic surgeon operating out of her mother’s beautician business (Polish Mary?), one discovers a revolutionary new orgasm-inducing treatment, there’s a trip to Paris where two of the girls decide to have sex with – and I quote – a “mulatto”, there’s plenty of rumination on Big Pharma, and wouldn’t you believe it, all of these women ultimately form a friendship group where they gain validation. Along the way there are grisly medical procedures, ridiculous physical comedy (often side-by-side with people dying on operating tables) and some very odd ideas about being a woman.
I get the feeling that director and writer Patryck Vega wanted this film to be in some way an affirmation of women Doing It For Themselves, and goodness knows I’m not really part of that Sistahood mindset, but this film’s attempts to represent women making good made me laugh out loud on several occasions, they were so incredibly wrongheaded by most standards we ever see. If ever Botoks is po-faced, and it is sometimes, it’s on the subject of how these women are treated and how they try to make their own way in a tough, even misogynistic world. But amongst many of the things here which really wouldn’t fly for British (or most) audiences is how they do that – all having celebratory amateur labiaplasty, for starters, whilst Daniela gets refigured from the feet up so she can go off and do well in her new career. Pregnancy and maternity figure hugely here, a seeming inevitability of having sex even once, but at the same time childbirth is represented as utterly nightmarish – not one delivery goes smoothly. One scene, for example, has a baby’s shoulders being broken so it can be yanked out of the birth canal. Thanks to the wonders of medical advancement this whole childbirth thing is a hidden world to me and perhaps lots of babies have their shoulders deliberately broken by midwives, in which case Vega has shown me the light. On the other hand, though, perhaps childbirth is being deliberately rendered a graphic, potentially fatal horror show, splicing real footage with the dramatized footage, all whilst abortion is shown as a deeply corrupt procedure where live babies are deliberately left in trays to die, and all the while these kinds of scenes are bookended by people with, say, perfume bottles wedged in their anuses. To say this film is ‘tonally a little busy’ is a wild understatement., and I’m not sure I quite buy the validation of women it offers. No, actually, that’s a lie – I’m completely sure.
I wouldn’t dare to presume that Botoks represents its country in any sense, and the angry Polish reviews on IMDb tell their own story, but it’s certainly an interesting window on…something; if nothing else, its utterly unreconstructed nature is somehow refreshing, and the flashes of brusque, very dry and mean-spirited humour are interesting in their own right. The matter-of-factness in the script definitely makes an impact, again because we would never ordinarily hear such things spoken aloud. I gather that Botoks has now become the basis for a TV series, which perhaps allows for less plot to be absolutely crammed into every episode.
Botoks rides high in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category; that said, I can understand the Poles angry at how Vega has represented their country. I’d recommend bearing in mind, before viewing, that Poland is an amazing place, and then treating this as what it is: an extraordinary, wrongheaded exploitation movie which, like the rest of them, perishes by being taken seriously.