Sexmission (1984)

SexmissionPoland

4*
Director:
Juliusz Machulski
Screenwriters:
Juliusz Machulski
Jolanta Hartwig
Pavel Hajný
Director of Photography:
Jerzy Łukaszewicz

Original title: Seksmisja

Running time: 116 minutes

This Polish film from the early 1980s is at times hilarious and very often terribly kitsch but can also be rather uncomfortable given the basic plot of a chauvinist protagonist facing off against feminism run wild in 2044.

Opening in 1991 with the arrival of a doctor whose one hand is limp and covered by a glove (the Dr. Strangelove reference cannot be by accident), named Dr. Kuppelweiser, it is said that cryogenesis has developed to a point where an experiment is feasible. Two men, the overweight and bombastic Maksymilian and the slim, more bookish Albert, leave their loved ones behind in the name of science and are scheduled to return three years later.

But plans don’t always work out the way we expect them to, and they wake up in 2044 in a world without any men — a “lesbian utopia” where reproduction is accomplished through asexual parthenogenesis, and any deviations (i.e. men) from the ideal are scheduled for naturalization, through which they will become female.

Maksymilian and Albert are certainly not in the mood to have their sex changed, and Maksymilian start hatching a plan to seduce the female population en masse. His thinking, rarely questioned by the filmmaker, is that women need men and men need women. And yet, there is a revolutionary underground force of women who like to experiment with each other (a scene that exhilarates the two men) and many of the powerful women give off lesbian vibes.

But leaving director Machulski’s confused contemplation of gender equality aside for a moment, it is important to note the film as a slightly subversive record of its time. While never as overtly satirical as Stanisław Bareja’s Miś, another Polish classic from 1981, there are moments when we can see Machulski making light of the political situation in Poland in the 1980s while at the same time underlining its seriousness.

An obvious example is Maksymilian’s realisation that, by sleeping for 53 years, he missed out completely on getting his long-awaited flat from the government in 1998. While it may not seem like such a big deal, since he was frozen in 1991, the film itself was released in 1984, and many Polish viewers would have viewed the year 1998 in that context, in other words a wait of 14 years.

But another example is more opaque, as it is tied to the film’s very foundation. It provides a moment reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village when, towards the end, we discover that things on Earth are not really quite as bad as the all-female population have led themselves to believe, and in fact the major players are only pretending to safeguard lower-ranking members in order to maintain control. This power they exert in order not to lose control is actually very easily comparable to the regime of the Communist Party of the time, and the lies that are told about life outside the confines of their bubble can be equated to lies (or exaggerations) told about the West.

In these final scenes, a revelation is also made about the existence of a cross-dresser that narrowly escapes labelling as transgenderphobic. Jerzy Stuhr, who plays the slightly heavy-set Maksymilian, at one point goes on a kissing rampage in the all-female world, which causes many women to pass out. This reaction is for comical effect, but also creates the impression that women and men necessarily need each other for sexual satisfaction. And when the one woman is revealed to be a man, the psychological effect of pretending to be something you are not is not addressed at all; instead, there is a substantial assumption that things will immediately go back to normal and he will simply “be a man”.

Sexmission is more about comedy that about filmmaking. The images are often a mess, following no particular point of view or sequence, and in on particular shot the focus is racked completely out of sync with the actions it seeks to highlight. The story is lighthearted and easy to enjoy, and the young blond girl who is the principal guardian of Maksymilian and Albert in the future, Lamia Reno, is particularly effective as a strong woman whose sexuality makes her more amenable to sexual persuasion. Students of feminism will have a field day tearing the film apart, and for most 21st-century viewers the film will also provide its share of uncomfortable moments, though Machulski is not entirely indifferent to man’s negative influence on the world, as is made clear when we learn wars and venereal diseases are a thing of the past thanks to the extinction of man.

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