In a world where it is impossible to openly speak your mind, science fiction is sometimes one of the few refuges for those who dare to criticize the system.
This was the role it played in the Communist nations of the Twentieth century. While failing to comply with the latest State shibboleths could destroy the career of the average writer or filmmaker, for some reason, SF writers successfully produced biting — if deniable — works of satire by the simple stratagem of putting them in the future or on alien worlds.
Or at least, it was successful in the Seventies and Eighties, when no one believed in the true Communist faith any more, particularly not in the satellite nations like Poland. It was still enormously difficult to navigate the treacherous political currents of the time, but a few daring creators managed to do so quite successfully.
Juliusz Machulski was one of the most successful of them, producing in the last few years of the Soviet age two relatively safe period crime dramas, an outrageous satirical fantasy set in a world of tiny people in a disused bathroom (Kingsize), and this film.
Curiously, it has been almost completely misunderstood in the West.
His two heroes are put in suspended animation — supposedly for a short time — but instead wake up in the future, in a post-Apocalyptic world where all the men have died off and only women are left, reproducing themselves through technological means.
It stuns them, however, when they don’t get the hero’s welcome they expect. They think that they are the key to returning the world to normal, but the women are happy with the way things are and have no intention of going back to the old way.
They end up on the run with the help of one of their former captors, and learn that things are not what they seem — and even the ruler of this strange new land is hiding a curious secret…
Sexmission is usually seen in the West as a story about the war of the sexes. However, what Western critics have generally missed is that the leaders of this all-female society use the same language as the Communist state. Whether or not anything like feminism existed behind the Iron Curtain (somehow I suspect such a notion would not have been tolerated, as everyone was supposedly “liberated” by Socialism already), Machulski had his satiric sights set firmly on the political realities of 1980s Poland. And it as a particularly savage satire, with its society based on a huge lie, in which what is normal and natural is seen as a threat to the State.
Ironically, putting these Socialist slogans in the mouths of this all-female society leaves them sounding uncomfortably like Gender Feminists, although it would be most of a decade before their writings were first published.
Jerzy Stuhr, who plays one of the two leads, was one of the major stars of Polish cinema. He would appear in many of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films, in three of Piotr Szulkin‘s SF political fables, and work with Machulski on many of his other films. He was a gifted comic actor and his talents are definitely on display here. Machulski is still directing today, although he rarely returned to fantasy after the fall of the wall.
The film is riotously funny, from the opening credits which deliberately ape those of the current James Bond films (and lead us to expect an entirely different sort of film), to the outrageous final act of “monkeywrenching” that its heroes engage in to bring down the monolithic state. It ends with an absurdly clear visual gag which would never, ever have been allowed in an American film.
Despite the title, there is no actual sex shown. However, there is a lot of female nudity, most of it almost a casual detail of its science fictional world. This film would probably earn a hard “R” in the US (or perhaps even an NC-17 for one image) but is surprisingly PG otherwise. It is one of the finest — and funniest — comedies to escape the Iron Curtain during the reign of the Evil Empire, although one does suspect that it would trample all over the sensibilities of a lot of Western viewers.
So, if you’re easily offended — or can’t stand subtitles — you might want to give this one a miss. But if you have a taste for Eastern European cinema, particularly absurd comedies that dare to take on the status quo with hysterical savagery, you will enjoy this one.
(English subtitles available here)
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