Weddings in Eastern Europe can last all night, and the liquor is always flowing. A typical wedding is central to “Demon,” a Polish film from Marcin Wrona, but it has one crucial difference: A supernatural spirit haunts the groom. “Demon” is not a horror film, exactly, although it can prove disturbing. Wrona jumbles several genres together, including dark comedy, to illuminate larger, more ambitious themes.
When we first meet Piotr (Itay Tiran), he can barely contain his joy. Piotr is a charismatic young engineer living in London who returns to rural Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). They’re passionate lovers who can hardly keep their hands off each other long enough to get the decrepit wedding venue ready for the big day. Shortly before the ceremony, however, Piotr finds a skeleton on the grounds and sees a pale young woman nearby, and those two images leave an eerie imprint he cannot comprehend.
The wedding commences and soon takes on a life its own, with the guests drinking and cavorting. The film’s first act is full of horror cliches, such as characters who can be defined by a single characteristic, such as the blowhard father of the bride (Andrzej Grabowski) and his goofily hedonistic son (Tomasz Schuchardt).
Meanwhile, as the hours go by, Piotr’s behavior changes in strange ways. No one can figure it out, and the father-in-law suggests Piotr may be epileptic. One older guest finally realizes the source of the trouble is a dybbuk, a ghost from Jewish mythology that can possess the bodies of living humans, and the victim this one has chosen to possess is Piotr.
In Tiran’s slow-burn portrayal, Piotr’s increasingly unhinged antics are like an inverse reflection of the party. The crowd gets wilder and happier, while the color drains from Piotr’s face. “Demon” has few special effects, so Wrona frames the possession in realistic ways, all the more wrenching because they are so plausible. When the dybbuk completes her takeover of Piotr, a steady wide shot of his bizarre spasms is the film’s disturbing centerpiece.
Zaneta watches her husband with increasing desperation and fear. But her father responds with comically blunt pragmatism — he cares more about saving face than about the groom’s health. His solution is simple: Get Piotr out of sight, and get the guests more inebriated so they cannot remember the scene he caused. With their elegant outfits coming undone, the revelers’ path toward a jovial stupor is a terrific ongoing visual gag.
This “too drunk to remember” strategy serves as an early metaphor for the deeper point of “Demon.” The cosmopolitan Piotr represents modern Europe: He speaks English and has little interest in Polish history and culture. The older wedding guests are both more provincial and sensitive, and they quietly mourn not only what is happening to Piotr but also the fate of the young woman who has become the dybbuk. As ghost and victim temporarily share a body, they reflect a sense of shared history.
Wlodzimierz Press plays the wedding’s sole Jewish guest (the movie’s subtext is that the Holocaust wiped out the area’s Jewish population), and his role is crucial: Early in the movie, he makes a maudlin toast, but later he realizes he knew the dybbuk when she was alive. His transition from an out-of-touch old-timer into a wise old man is a powerful reminder of the importance of remembering and honoring the past.
There is a tragic footnote to “Demon.” Marcin Wrona died last September at age 42, an apparent suicide. He was a talented filmmaker, with an eye for the unexpected and a strong sense of compassion, so his memory haunts his final film alongside its subject.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language, sexuality and some disturbing content. In English and Polish with subtitles. 94 minutes.