I Am REN Movie Review
Written by Ren Zelen
Released by Holly Pictures
Written and directed by Piotr Ryczko
2019, 75 minutes, Not Yet Rated
Grimmfest UK Premiere on 11th October 2020
Marta Król as Renata Wiskirska
Marcin Sztabinski as Jan Wiskirski
Marieta Zukowska as Ela
Janusz Chabior as Therapist
Olaf Marchwicki as Kamil
I should clarify first of all that, actually, I am ‘Ren’ too, but mercifully, I am a Ren unacquainted with the experiences of the female protagonist played by Marta Król in Piotr Ryczko’s first feature film.
The film opens with Renata (Marta Król), the mother of the Wirskirska family, reminiscing about her almost idyllic life with husband Jan (Marcin Sztabinski), and son Kamil (Olaf Marchwicki), while living in relative isolation at a lake house in the Polish woodlands. Then one day, her happy world comes crashing down.
On a particular morning after Jan goes to work, Renata has some kind of traumatic breakdown, and Jan comes home to find a terrified son cowering in a corner of his room and his wife crouching by her bed, bruised, shaking and bedraggled.
After examining a near delirious Renata, it is decided amongst Jan and a group of consultants that the family should all go to a secure institution for therapy and to get to the bottom of what might have happened during that devastating day.
At the institute, a cool and coherent Renata informs her therapist (Janusz Chabior), that she is not really ‘Renata’ but REN, which is an acronym for a ‘Regenerative Emotive Neuro-being’. She is an android, one created to bring only happiness to her husband and son and unable to harm them in any way. She explains that if any REN automata should malfunction they would immediately be decommissioned, so it would be impossible for her to have caused any domestic disturbance. She is judged okay and should be able to go back home with Jan and Kam.
However, what is problematic is that REN has no memory of the events that led up to her ‘breakdown’ or any clear picture of what happened at that time, so she remains at the institute, confined within its compound.
Soon REN comes across a woman called Ela (Marieta Zukowska), who covertly explains that she is familiar with cases like hers, and that husband Jan and the ‘therapists’ at the institute have sinister intentions towards her.
Ela indicates that REN may well be the victim of coercive control and that her husband has erased her memory of that day in order to make her the fall-guy for his own child abuse. Ela insists that REN should treat them all with suspicion, as they are conspiring to have her dismantled and replaced by a new model.
But this scenario remains ambiguous - it continues to be possible that REN’s therapist just wants to understand her state of mind and that her family really is caring and worried – that her husband still loves her and her teen son is just angry because she hit him and is upset that she seems to have erased her memories of his early childhood.
As the film unfolds it becomes clear that REN is not a reliable narrator. Is she actually a Regenerative Emotional Neuro-Being, or perhaps a human who is under the delusion that she is an android? Writer-director Piotr Ryczko forces the audience to confront the implications of this ambiguity and interestingly, what it might say about Renata’s condition and her relationship to society.
Whether Renata is human or android, the society she finds herself in is unremittingly patriarchal. Her role as a woman is defined - she is a home-maker whose function is to care selflessly for her son and provide a sexual repository for her husband (her blank-eyed expression while her husband has sex with her certainly makes her seem little more than a pliant doll). In an early scene she is seen to be plugged into her kitchen, and when not there, she sits by the window and knits woolen accessories.
That a man would want a perfect, pliant, mechanical construct rather than a fully human partner (as explored in such films as Ex Machina and The Stepford Wives) is a notion that I Am REN indicates is uncomfortably close to reality in many societies where wives are still seen as possessions or little more than servants.
The film suggests that in some societies, the role of an artificially sentient handmaiden is almost indistinguishable from the reality of a woman broken by her inability to live up to the pressure of physical perfection and the demands that a patriarchal society places upon her.
In this environment, REN and others in the institution may be discarded androids, or simply be women unable to cope with what might be perceived as their ‘failings’. The idea that she may have attacked her son has possibly pushed Renata over the edge, and she simply cannot see herself as human any longer.
There is a bleak message here, that women who are deemed to be imperfect by not living up to the expectations and obligations that society places upon them are discarded, sometimes even placed in institutions, and are then replaced by better models, as are all commodities that are no longer of use.
These aspects of Ryczko’s film become all the more pertinent as recently the EU and the Council of Europe voiced alarm over the Polish right-wing government's move to withdraw from an international treaty combating violence against women. The treaty was intended to protect women from abuse, but it became a target for populist and nationalist leaders who claimed that it poses a threat to “traditional families”. I Am REN may be read as a warning that certain technological aspirations for AI may well be the latest symptom of an ingrained form of misogyny.
I Am REN (Jestem REN is its original Polish title, also known as Panacea in some territories) is primarily a psychological film, as it is focused on examining the world solely from the perspective of REN-Renata. It becomes a drama that uses the sub-genre of sci-fi films which deal with the pitfalls of being an artificial, sentient being, to reveal something about society and the human condition.
In layering its ambiguities, the film is in danger of over-complicating its narrative, but for the most part, it proves to be a revealing and tense trip into the unravelling of an overburdened mind. Credit should go to Marta Król’s excellent central performance – at times an emotional, warm, vulnerable and frightened woman, and at others convincingly resembling a machine in a process of self-examination, assessing a situation it has not been programmed for. For much of the film she keeps us guessing at to what her reality actually is.
Director/writer Ryczko grew up in Norway, and a Scandinavian aesthetic is certainly present in the film. He and cinematographer Yori Fabian indicated that they wanted “each space to reflect our heroine’s psychology and her internal journey…We decided to take the ‘Scandinavian’ look, all this coldness, anxiety and sometimes even paranoia, and use it in the film to our advantage.” Ryczko builds a near-future world, familiar enough to make it easy for an audience to slip into but odd enough to evoke the fear of being unable to differentiate between reality and delusion.
Based on Ryczko’s experiences of his own mother who suffered from mental illness, I Am REN’s primary interest is psychological, as the director revealed, “I wanted to give my viewers a chance to meet Renata…in order to empathize with her before we dive into her paranoid way of thinking, full of nooks and dead ends. I wanted to stay close to what I experienced in my family, so the decision to have a female protagonist seemed natural to me. I wanted to stick to the truth and talk about a woman who suffered.”
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