Mushrooms (Fantastic Fest 2023)
Dir. Paweł Borowski (2023)
An old woman foraging for mushrooms in the woods comes across a couple who were abandoned by their friends after a night of heavy drinking.
Polish cinema, especially Polish horror cinema, is known for being exceptionally weird. From Walerian Borowczyk's The Beast to Andrzej Żuławski's Possession, the country is home to bizarre and mind-bending flicks that deal heavily with psychological trauma and a folklore-driven mythology that differs greatly from our own. While I am certainly not a scholar of the region's films, I would imagine the content and unconventionality would derive from their history in much the same way that Germany's goremeisters drew inspiration from the limited permissiveness of their government in the wake of World War II. Mushrooms, the new film from Paweł Borowski, maintains this fairytale aesthetic while presenting the classic story of interloping strangers who may not be what they seem, Bonnie and Clyde by way of Hansel and Gretel.
An older woman is rummaging through the forest for mushrooms, gathering what she can find and using her expertise cultivated from decades of foraging to determine which ones are safe to eat and which are poisonous. She happens upon a young couple, dressed in strange and elaborate costumes straight out of a middle-school production of Henry VIII, and, despite her misgivings, helps guide them back to the village where they can find a change of clothing and go on their way. But things are not exactly as they seem, of course, the extent of which you will have to discover for yourself, as I shan't spoil it here.
Borowski does a great job of establishing this world, a fanciful forest where danger seems to lie around every corner. His stars are also excellent, masking their true intentions to the extent that the audience doesn't quite know what's coming next. Granted, longtime horror fans may well expect where it's headed, but even the most ardent genre faithful will likely not anticipate the full extent of the shift in tone. While it's a beautiful film that explores fully the natural charm and allure of the Polish countryside, it really is the acting that makes Mushrooms stand out. It's necessary, too: almost all of the film is the trio wandering through the woods, and without their stellar performances it would've been quite a slog to get through.
A mixture of folk horror and elegantly-told thriller, Mushrooms may not excite its audience in ways that American film fans are used to feeling, but it is nevertheless a worthwhile adventure. It would be easy to write this one off as a strange foreign film that will struggle to find a worldwide audience, but it is so much more than that. If you get the chance to check it out, I highly encourage it, and I look forward to hearing audience discussions of the ending. I, for one, didn't see it coming.
Who this movie is for: Folk horror fans, "Home" invasion lovers, Forest bathers
Bottom line: Polish films are certainly strange more often than not, and while this one does delve slightly into the more fanciful at times, it's otherwise a straight-up thriller about interlopers with mixed intentions. This one just played at Fantastic Fest, and I'm hoping it will help spread the word because I really enjoyed it. If you get the chance to check it out, do so, and let me know what you think of the ending.