Written and directed by Theresa Connelly
Fox Searchlight Pictures 1998
Originally developed at the Sundance Institute; screened at the Sundance Film Festival January 16, 1998 and at the Berlin International Film Festival February 12, 1998
Released in the US July 17, 1998
Cast: Claire Danes, Lena Olin, Rade Serbedzija
Rotten Tomatoes critics gave this film a 42% rating (not fresh)
Sometimes the farther you stray, the closer you are to home.
A passionate comedy about the secrets we know… and the lies we tell to keep them.
Theresa Connelly makes her directorial debut with her own screenplay, a semi-autobiographical romantic comedy-drama, set in working-class Detroit, about a large Polish-American family run by matriarch Jadzia Pzoniak (Lena Olin). Her four boys obey her, but adolescent Hala (Claire Danes) is rebellious and independent. Although happily married to bakery worker Bolek (Gabriel Byrne), Jadzia engages in an almost-open affair with Roman (Rade Serbedzija). Hala sneaks off for late-night trysts with her handsome neighbor Russell Schuster (Adam Trese), resulting in her pregnancy. After her parents learn the news, Russell is forced to marry Hala, and a big Polish wedding is planned. Shown at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. —Bhob Stewart, AllMovie.com
As implied by the name, the film’s plot takes place within the Polish American community of Hamtramck, Michigan – girlhood home of director Theresa Connelly – at some time between the 1950s and 1970s. Virtually all characters are Polish Americans, though the actors playing them are mostly of other ethnic origins.
Critical and popular response to the film was mixed. Critics thought it was a somewhat poor first film from director Theresa Connelly and left it at that. Movie-goers who were Polish American or Catholic were upset by the film’s handling of sexual, religious, ethnic and other themes. There was official consternation on the part of some Catholic Church officials. Some who saw the film responded favorably to its “over-the-top” depiction of family dynamics. Others thought it was unrealistic. The film did not perform well at the box office when it was first released. However, a recent 2012 re-release on DVD indicates time may have healed some of the earlier wounds…
More promotional images are in the Gallery.
More posters and other promotional materials are in the Gallery.
screencaps by Lozzie
More wonderful screencaps provided by Lozzie are in the Gallery.
Bolek: [Tosses around in bed, sits up screaming]
Jadzia: [wakes up] What is it, Bolek? Did you have a bad dream?
Bolek: You speared me with your toe nails! They’re like daggers!
Bolek: A woman is born to be both more and less than a man. She must be above him and beneath him.
Bolek: In the beginning, there was a lump of dough. You and me. Until the Master Breadmaker himself, with his own two hands, gave us shape. First, He made man, and out of man’s body, woman.
Hala: After man? Why after?
Bolek: She was an improvement. Man was simple, basic, a pumpernickel. But woman was like a light and airy Easter halka.
[In the cellar filled with pickle jars]
Jadzia: All of a sudden, just to look at them fills me with sadness.
Bolek: Maybe we don’t need so many pickles.
Dennis Hensley, interviewer
Read the entire interview in the Press Section of the Gallery
Q: You also recently worked with another young star, Claire Danes, who plays your daughter in Polish Wedding. What was she like?
A: We were just cracking up the whole time. There are times when we would walk into a scene barely able to keep it together, do our acting, walk out and collapse. At the end of the picture she gave me a photograph and wrote on it, “I’d love to work with you again, but I’d be in danger of being hospitalized from laughing.”
Q: What about Lena Olin, who plays your wife?
A: In terms of sexiness, Lena wipes most of these women away who are so-called “sexy.” You can’t define it, but it’s just there.
Newfoundland Herald, 11 April 1998
Ian Spelling, interviewer
Read the entire interview in the Press Section of the Gallery
Byrne, who lives in Los Angeles and is the father of two young children with [Ellen] Barkin, will next be seen in Polish Wedding, a small drama due out in July that co-stars Claire Danes.
“It’s a family film, a beautifully observed, humorous tale about a Polish community in Detroit,” he says. “It’s a simple, gentle film a lot of people will relate to.”
“Claire is exceptional in it,” Byrne says. “She’s not only an incredible actress, but a beautiful person, too. Lena Olin and I play her parents in the story.”
It’s impossible to dispute suburban Detroit cleaning woman Jadzia Pzoniak when she tells the rich lover who wants to own her that, with five children and a husband, she’s already a queen. As Jadzia, Lena Olin proves to be first-time filmmaker Theresa Connelly’s strongest ally in her quest to invest the squabbles and liaisons of a working-class Polish family with lyrical grandeur and absurd, understated humor. Connelly amusingly highlights the sly evasions and outright bravado that each of the clan’s members must practice in order to find fulfillment outside the family. But it’s the gravitational force of the family itself that lends Polish Wedding’s central drama an epic intensity. Olin’s fierce matriarch, simmering through a long, uneasy truce with domesticity, yearns for the spark of passion even as she dominates her children’s lives. Meanwhile, daughter Hala (Claire Danes), the darling of the family, walks the same fine line between passion and respectability. Although Olin’s performance is a revelation, Danes can’t quite match her firepower; the complex emotional shadings of the film’s final stretch elude the young actress. But with rock-solid Gabriel Byrne onboard as the family’s wry, resigned patriarch — and with Connelly’s rich sense of place and community anchoring the film — Polish Wedding often succeeds in its mission to celebrate the desperate passions of ordinary lives.
Film Journal/Ethan Alter (this article is no longer available at the Film Journal website)
Capturing this mood is a difficult trick for even an experienced filmmaker to pull off, but writer/director Theresa Connelly gets it right her first time out. She’s helped by a good visual sense, a wonderful score, and strong writing that highlights her obvious love for her characters. Unfortunately, she loves them too much; she can’t bear to let their stories end unhappily, no matter what problems they experience throughout the film.
The actors are all uniformly good, with Olin stealing the show as the strong-willed and stunning Jadzia. Byrne’s performance takes a little getting used to; it’s a shock at first to hear this very Irish actor adopt a Polish accent, but, as the movie progresses, the actor settles into his role. He also develops a strong rapport with Danes, who continues to demonstrate that she would have been a wonderful silent-screen actress. Her delivery is flat, but she makes up for it by speaking volumes with her face. In the scenes where she tempts Russell, Danes, without saying a word, captures the awkwardness and the excitement of a teenage girl starting to understand her sexual power.
Theresa Connelly, who clearly has a great deal of affinity for these characters, presents them in warts-and-all fashion, rightfully certain that we will sympathize with them in spite of (or perhaps because of) their faults. Connelly displays the skill of a veteran in the unforced manner in which she weds comedy and pathos throughout the film. There are a few occasions when she strikes a jarring note, such as a when Jadzia and her sons storm Russell’s house, but these are exceptions. For the most part, the whimsical and dramatic elements are seamlessly fused. Connelly also understands the unique dynamics of a large family. Often, as we see with Jadzia and Bolek, it’s not love that keeps couples together, but loyalty and a sense of duty.
“Polish Wedding” is the kind of movie that cries out to be set in a country I know little or nothing about. Maybe I would believe this colorful behavior in Albania, or in one of those Italian comedies where Sophia Loren knew everybody in town, biblically and otherwise. In a Detroit suburb, I don’t imagine carefree people gambol in the fields and gather around the breakfast table for family conversations apparently inspired by sitcom dialogue. Oh, I believe all the things happen in Detroit that happen in this movie; I simply don’t believe people rant and rave and posture and emote so wildly while they’re happening. A lot of the time I’ll bet they’re monosyllabic, and even during their emotional peaks still spend a lot of time watching TV.
“A Cellar Full of Pickles and Soup Made With Blood: One Version of Earthiness”
With its duck’s blood soup and pickles, ”Polish Wedding” offers ample opportunities for rough-and-tumble family farce. But none of its humor is allowed to run free. That’s because the movie would like more than anything to be a nostalgically heartwarming slice of working-class Polish Americana. At the same time, it is so intent on not striking any downbeat notes of kitchen-sink realism that the very real problems its characters face — adultery, unmarried pregnancy and ethnic discrimination — have no dramatic weight. Lost in a stylistic limbo, the most ”Polish Wedding” can muster is an attitude that could be described as wanly cute.
A disjointed but funny look at a fictitious, blue collar, Polish American family, “Polish Wedding” manages to be enjoyable due to its winning cast and charmingly buoyant aura that permeates the film. That, accompanied by some nicely done individual scenes, allows the picture to overcome its mediocre and often unwieldy plot, resulting in a decent, but not great, hour and a half diversion in a darkened theater.
Gabriel Byrne (“The Usual Suspects”) is also good as the world-weary father who’s been driven to near passivity by his nighttime/early morning job, domineering wife, and household of family members who won’t move out. While his Polish accent occasionally comes close to sounding too forced, Byrne otherwise gives a winning take on his easily sympathetic character.
sundance film festival premiere with Lena Olin
More pictures from the festival are available in the Gallery. Thanks to LenaOlin.net for providing these!
a socio-political critique
As already noted, the film created a stir when it was released. This article examines the response to Polish Wedding, as well as The Big Lebowski, another film with Polish-American characters, and also explains some of the underlying themes in both films.
“The Big Lebowski Goes To The Polish Wedding: Polish Americans–Hollywood Style” by John J. Bukowczyk
[Originally published in The Polish Review, vol. 47, no. 2, copyright 2002 The Polish Institue of Arts and Sciences of America]
It is curious that The Big Lebowski seems to have attracted no notice by ethnic organizations, the ethnic press, or ethnic filmgoers. Is it possible that many Polish American male baby-boomers actually might have recognized— or even identified—with such robust, ribald, irreverent, offbeat—and largely de-ethnicized—characters as Walter and The Dude? By contrast, writer-director Theresa Connelly’s film, Polish Wedding, touched off a firestorm of criticism within Polonia involving its motives, mistakes, and intentions.
A statement by the Anti-Bigotry Committee of the Polish American Congress summarizes much of both the popular and institutional criticism of the film, which implicated the film’s storyline as well as individual artistic details: “No wedding takes place. It’s nothing but a contrived series of silly sexual escapades by a cheating wife and her promiscuous daughter shown as members of a crude and low-class family that Fox Films decided to give a Polish Catholic identity.” Because of Polish Wedding’s flaws as a film, it requires considerable exertion to understand and to appreciate it. The value of these labors probably would not justify the effort but for the importance the film has acquired, more as artifact than as art, owing both to the claims made by its director for the film’s ethnic authenticity and the strong, occasionally vitriolic reaction the film called forth from organized Polonia as well as from individual Polish American moviegoers. While some critics took offense at the film’s ethnic and religious irreverence, some either misunderstood its artistic intentions or merely expressed distaste for the film’s genre. In fact, it is not intended as an ethnography, as many Polish American film-goers and critics apparently would have preferred, but an ethnic-American version of a French bedroom comedy with minor pretentions to being cinematic art. From the standpoint of ethnic criticism, both Polish Wedding and The Big Lebowski seem to try to break away from reductive Polish American filmic stereotypes at the same time that they try to use and manipulate them.
A second highly controversial element of Polish Wedding centers around what some critics considered its blasphemous handling of Roman Catholicism. Satire and criticism of the Roman Catholic Church have been common in both film and television, with a publicist for the Catholic League commenting that “rarely, if ever, is there a positive role for the Church in movie portrayals of Catholicism.” Polish Wedding raised Catholic ire, in the words of a League spokesman, because in it the characters’ “Catholic faith is made the object of rank hypocrisy” epitomized by the devout yet adulterous Jadzia, the pregnant “virgin” Hala, and the film’s indecorous, intolerant, unforgiving priest. Meanwhile, Connelly uses a parody of May Marian devotions, so beloved to devout Polish Catholics, as the setting for the climax of the film. One film-goer found the ensuing conflict between Hala and the priest merely “symbolic of the conflict in the Church today.”
Finally, a third, somewhat more amorphous area in Polish Wedding that engendered viewer and critic complaints involved the domestic portrayal of Polish womanhood in the persons of Hala and Jadzia. Some film-goers and ethnic critics identified specific “mistakes” in distaff detail: the family’s daily diet of homemade pierogi (dumplings) as too labor-intensive realistically to maintain; “leaving laundry on the clothesline overnight” as “unthinkable for a Polish woman”; the alleged portrayal of Polish food (pierogi, kielbasa, a storage room full of jars of homemade pickles) as “grotesque” the depiction of Jadzia and Hala as “sluts.” Implicated in the last is what one commentator characterized as a defense of “feminine Polish honor” by alleged guardians of ethnic patriarchy.  Ironically, a 1976 scholarly study by anthropologist Paul Wrobel of a Detroit Polish neighborhood on the outskirts of Hamtramck faced similar criticism for its portrayal of matriarchal working-class Polish American households. While specific criticisms such as these might be debated and possibly rebutted serially, Connelly’s choice of these details makes better sense when set within the totality of the film.
More fundamentally, some of these criticisms misfire because Polish Wedding is a story about family, matriarchy, womanhood, sexuality, and sexual relationships between women and men, however clumsily the film carries it off. Despite superficial appearances, the film destabilizes the stereotype of Slavic women—babushka-clad and shapeless; and several filmgoers applaud this accomplishment. “And at last,” one wrote, “an attractive older woman (Olin) who has an affair!” Another commentator remarked, “Polish American women are flesh and blood”; while another concedes that Olin and Danes are “gorgeous.” Beneath the surface of these racy female portrayals are characters with a visceral feminist consciousness, remarked elsewhere in the scholarly literature. “This is my house,” Jadzia says, “these are my sons. This is my husband, my bread, my table, my kitchen, mine.” Jadzia is “a fiercely proud and sexual matriarch” and “queen of her castle.” Hala is destined to become Jadzia, as will her newborn baby daughter after her. The film is thus non-linear and cyclical in concept, which helps to explain filmgoers’ problems in finding in it a plot. Parenthetically, before such women, the male figure can be weak, nothing. To Roman, Jadzia says, “I’m a queen. I have five children, four of them boys, men, a husband. I have my own house. What do you have?” But a man such as husband Bolek is not weak but rather strong and masculine for wisely recognizing the ageless, immutable, inexorable, primordial power and mystery of womankind … The feminism in this film clearly is an essentialist construct, one that embraces its limits as it revels in its strengths.
One film alone does not constitute a Polish American cinema nor does Polish Wedding, that is, this one particular film, make its writer-director a Polish-American filmmaker, that is, a filmmaker for whom Polish American ethnicity forms an integral part of his creative vision and artistic oenvre. While another commentator speculated that, in her future work, Connelly would avoid making another film “in which Polonia figures,” given the ethnic criticisms leveled at the film, it is precisely more focus on Polonia and its people that would reinforce Connelly’s identity as a Polish-American artist and perhaps bring Polonia a step closer to having a cinema that it could call its own. Nonetheless, the negative Polish American institutional and popular response to Connelly’s first work certainly underscores the difficulties of evolving an ethnic cinema that simultaneously merits critical acclaim, is commercially successful (this film was not), and receives approbation from both ethnic opinion-leaders and moviegoers.
According to Wikipedia, this was Kristen Bell’s first film, though she was uncredited. She played “Teenage Girl.”
Original Music by Luis Bacalov