31 May 2022
In his radical debut, emerging filmmaker Tomasz Wiński examines the limits of freedom, hidden desires, nonmonogamous love, and power struggles in relationships. Borders of Love is an unprecedented work in contemporary Czech cinema.
Article by Martin Kudláč for CZECH FILM magazine / Fall 2021
Romance movies remain a vital genre in Czech cinema, topping the box office with their mass appeal. But relationship-centered stories aren’t confined to mainstream territory. Independent films explore passion, desire, and trauma from the darker side, in a less escapist way, with more inventive formal approaches.
Examples of this include Bohdan Karásek’s debut, Karel, Me and You (2019), a mumblecore-like dramedy about a married couple who take a “pause” in their relationship, and Šimon Hollý’s psychological chamber drama about a breakup, Mirrors in the Dark (2021), made on a shoestring budget. And now Borders of Love, by the Polish-born, Prague-based writer-director-producer Tomasz Wiński, is poised to become the latest and most radical representative of this strain of Czech cinema.
Hana and Petr, facing a crisis in their marriage, decide to solve it by opening up their relationship, under condition that they will remain honest, sharing their new experiences and sexual escapades with each other. But the experiment takes a darker turn when their enjoyment of this newly acquired freedom morphs into a power struggle. Confessions of extramarital affairs are wielded as a weapon, with truthfulness replaced by pretence. As husband and wife each attempt to present the best image of their imaginary selves, it leads to an escalation of emotional and psychological violence that takes them to the breaking point.
“Everyone likes to talk about monogamy, infidelity, sexual fantasies, the limits of freedom in a relationship, what has to be sacrificed, what are the boundaries of relationships and whether these boundaries can be negotiated, and this is what fascinated us,” says Wiński, explaining what inspired him and his cowriters to write the story.
As a student at FAMU, Wiński directed five short films, and his graduation project, Symptoms (2011), won the Best Film and Best Feature Director awards at the 2011 FAMUFEST. After graduating, he worked as assistant director on a string of projects, including Plac Zbawiciela (2006) and Papusza (2013), both by Krzysztof Krauze and Joanna Kos Krauze. Borders of Love is Wiński’s first feature-length offering, and after six years the project is nearing the finish line.
Borders of Love is a passion project for Wiński, who self-financed development of the film in the beginning with encouragement from actor Hana Vágnerová. Eventually Vágnerová joined Wiński as a writing partner and was cast in the lead role of Hana. The story draws on actual events and experiences of their friends and acquaintances. The two of them previously worked together as students at FAMU on a short film about a couple experimenting with different partners, and ultimately this became the basis for Borders of Love.
As Borders of Love continued to develop under the aegis of Radovan Síbrt of PINK, the producer invited award-winning author Petra Hůlová (All This Belongs to Me, Three Plastic Rooms, The Movement) to join the writing tandem to help shape the story. After several drafts, filmmaker Olmo Omerzu came on board as a script consultant and helped rebuild the story structure. With the new plot foundations laid out, Wiński then asked author and stage director Kasha Jandáčková for a new round of rewrites. By that time, the project had been taken over from PINK by experienced producer Jiří Konečný of endorfilm (co-producer of last year’s Golden Bear–winning Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn), who adopted a daring production strategy to help crystallize the film into its current form. Under the wings of endorfilm, Borders of Love received production support from the Czech Film Fund, which stated that Wiński’s film “expands the diversity of Czech cinema with an uncompromising relationship drama of a type not normally made in Czech cinema.”
The project’s labor pains were prolonged in part due to the taboo subject matter. But, as Wiński explains, “It may be vulgar in writing, but once it’s performed in front of a camera, it’s no longer perverse. The story becomes poetic.” He notes that his previous project, the short film George the Dog, Refugee (2019), was also subject to similar misunderstandings.
Wiński’s 2019 BDSM-inspired short follows two young women who decide to adopt a “human dog.” The arrangement soon gets out of hand as the women become increasingly violent towards the submissive George, a man who has agreed to be treated as an animal. With its open examination of the pathology of communication and how psychological violence can escalate, George the Dog, Refugee was the first installment in Wiński’s topical trajectory zeroing in on the suppression of destructive emotions in close relationships and the perverse games that partners play with each other psychologically.
“We don’t want to compete with Gaspar Noé’s Love,” says the director. He acknowledges that the degree of nudity in his film exceeds the domestic standard, but says that rather than being gratuitious the graphic sexuality is essential for authenticity. Borders of Love contains “bold moments” of sex, but they are shot gently and tastefully, eschewing shock value, Wiński says. “What is even rougher and more shocking isn’t the nudity but the talk,” he adds, pointing out that the film’s verbal language is more radical than its visuals. “More important than the sex is the psychology of the sex,” the director says.
The psychosexual drama of Borders of Love, exploring various configurations of nonmonogamous love, required careful casting. Czech moviegoers will see popular actors in completely different roles than what they’re used to. Says Wiński, “We’ll see them in situations more extreme than anyone has seen them before.”
National Theater actor Matyáš Rezníček, in his first major film outing, has been picked to star opposite Vágnerová in the leading male role. This was a critical casting choice to achieve the on-screen chemistry needed for the central pair as they descend into a downward spiral of passion and deception. No less attention has been paid to the cast of supporting characters, with Hynek Čermák (National Street) and Lenka Krobotová (The Karamazovs) starring as a polyamorist couple; Martin Hoffman (Havel) and Eliška Křenková (Bird Atlas, Winter Flies) as a pair of swingers who have a foursome with the protagonists; and Elizaveta Maximová (One Hundred and Twenty-eight Thousand), who takes part in a threesome with husband and wife Petr and Hana.
Production on Borders of Love was prolonged due to the film being shot during a global pandemic. Principal photography unfolded over the course of several shoots between August and November 2020. With shooting days repeatedly cancelled, dates rescheduled, and new locations scouted out, Wiński says, “These shooting slots enabled us to continue working on the film during the coronavirus pandemic.” Nevertheless, the whole film has been shot. The cast went through the entire script in front of a camera in the director’s apartment. He then used the footage to create a rough cut, which helped the cast to fine-tune dialogues, rectify inauthentic moments, and in general achieve more organic interactions between the actors as they calibrated their interpretations.
Besides nudity and familiar actors in unfamiliar situations, another distinguishing trait of Borders of Love is its use of homemade footage. “Shooting on a phone is a significant part of the film because that’s the heart of the couple’s experiment, a bizarre game they play in bed,” Wiński says. He added that using a phone brings a deeper layer of intimacy than a cinematographer can achieve using conventional means.
This storytelling device creates additional tension as the borders between honesty and manipulative pretense start to blur. The film’s title directly references the memories and fantasies mediated by this homemade video, but also invokes Hana and Petr’s attempts to present a better image of themselves and the many forms love can take outside the norm of a monogamous relationship. Counterbalancing this intimate, raw footage is more objective and stylized fixed camerawork, with a hint of voyeurism, by DoP Kryštof Melka, who also lensed George the Dog, Refugee.
Borders of Love is a co-production between endorfilm and One Way Ticket Films — the latter being the company that Wiński cofounded with Tereza Nejedlá, and PINK.
“It’s not porn,” Wiński reiterates. “It’s a poetically refined intimate drama, a magical story examining hidden desires and needs.” His fascination with suppressed emotions and destructive relationships will continue with his next project, revolving around a cam girl and her intrusive fan, the final installment in an informal trilogy on the pathology of communication and power struggles in relationships.