CPH:DOX. Searching for love on the Volga

CPH:DOX. Searching for love on the Volga

In some ways, ‘bitter’ is somewhat of a misnomer in the title of Jerzy Sladkowski’s Bitter Love. Yes, at times the search for love is desperate, and quite often sad. But the cast of elderly and youthful characters that Sladkowski gathers within his film are philosophical about matters of the heart, and live their lives without rancour, albeit much of the time in solitude. 


What really underpins this masterly work is the presentation of humankind in all of its facets, whether they be hilarious, ludicrous, absurd, melancholic, comradely or just plain kind. 


“You ask me about falling in love with the characters, yes I am falling in love with my characters,” comments the director. “This is the basis of what I am doing. I can’t make a film about a person that I don’t have respect for, that I can’t ‘love’ from the beginning, whom I am not fascinated by. I wouldn’t have the motivation.”


Over the course of a three-week cruise, a gaggle of fascinating folk search for love, such as Oksana (a woman who really knows her Russian classics) and the aging guitarist Jura, who can’t quite get over a failed marriage to a much younger wife. Then there is Yuliya who is desperate to find a man (and does so temporarily in the form of Vladimir with strong legs and “an aquiline nose”). Larisa the clairvoyant has grown-up children but has never encountered real love and of course is onboard to find it. Meanwhile Sasha and Lyura attempt to rekindle a long relationship romance which has turned stale. All she wants is a marriage proposal, and for Sasha to shave off his new beard.


Youth is represented in the form of a boat pianist who is contemplating a life in New York, and leaving behind his opera-singing, melancholia-laden Lera behind. And the beautiful Margarita needs a break from her composer boyfriend who is very prone to jealousy.


Tears are a-plenty in the film, as are moments of sublime friendship and laugh-out-loud hilarity, and it is patently obvious that director Sladkowski had a great time making it, and reserves a tsunami of praise for his collaborator and DOP Wojtech Staron.


“After a few days we didn’t even think about the filmmaking as it was so natural,” he says. “You never know if [Staron] is filming or not. He is sitting with us, he is partying, he is just talking. He is super professional. He does his job and I am basically just socialising with the characters, sitting and listening to them… He is so concentrated, that is why I work with him. He is a great photographer. He has such a feeling for people. He loves people as much as I do.”


Sladkowski talks about his modus operandi in eliciting great performances from his characters, but objects to the suggestion that what we see on screen is a process of creation. This is an artificial concept in making documentaries, he maintains.


“We are just following. I am very observant. I am going around listening and collecting information and then sometimes I just say one word and that is enough,” he says. “Of course sometimes you have to push things to make them happen [or ‘provoke’, as stressed earlier in the interview] because you can’t always wait 4 weeks. But all this [creation] which is attached to directing is not working in documentary. 


“You love those people because they are real. It is not acting. They arrive, they behave, they have feelings and reactions, and they have beauty somehow.”