Karlovy Vary 2018: ‘Panic Attack’ Is the Perfect Way to Exorcise Your Inner Cringe

This piece is written by our guest writer Redmond Bacon.

Have you ever been confronted with a sudden moment that threatens to upend your life forever? Everything might be going swimmingly, but you never know when a brief revelation, mistake or threat can suddenly turn everything upside down. “Panic Attack” is the ultimate exploration of this theme, telling six intercut stories of protracted moments that will make you cringe right up until the end. If you have ever done something you look back on and go “Oh god why!” then “Panic Attack” is the perfect way to exorcise those demons. It’s probably not as bad as what these people go through.

The film telegraphs its sense of cathartic gloom straight from the beginning, starting with a radio host blowing his brains out. Then, in no particular order, we are shown: a couple on a plane with an annoying fellow passenger, a wedding caterer who is being blackmailed, a webcam actress hiding her profession from her friends, a young boy suffering from some extra strong cannabis, and a woman painfully meeting up with her ex. I’ll leave most of the description there as to tell exactly what happens in each segment is to ruin the fun of discovering it yourself.

The anthology style recalls “Wild Tales” not only in its exuberance (it also has a wacky wedding!) but also in the hit and miss nature of its humour. The best story of the lot by far is the almost Hitchcockian tale of the webcam star and her ever-so-nosey friends. It turns out she once dated the man who kills himself at the start of the film, so her three girlfriends turn up to express their condolences. She quickly has to hide all of her gear – including various dildos, her cameras, and sexy lingerie – and act like nothing has happened. Mortified that her friends will find out what she has done with her life, she interprets every interaction as another uncovering while her friends think she is suffering deeply from grief. It speaks to the very real sensation that when you’ve done something “wrong” (not that there’s anything wrong with camming!) you start to believe that everyone knows about it. Excellently acted and timed, the multiple layers of dramatic irony in this segment could have easily stood up as its own short movie. 

Instead of merely telling a series of stories, director Pawel Maslona chooses to intercut them together to create a piece of constantly moving tension. This cinematic technique is as old as time, dating back to D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” from 1916, which intercut between four different stories with gradually increasing fury. He described this technique as similar to creating a symphony, in which interlocking melodies would eventually merge into one huge and thudding theme. While “Panic Attack does not have quite the same humanist ambition, it’s working in a similar ballpark, slowly making each story more and more short and tense as the film goes on.

Panic Attack2

Unlike “Wild Tales” or “Intolerance” however, each story is eventually revealed to be connected together. Presented in a non-linear way, it requires the viewer to fill in the pieces herself, creating a work that is enjoyable to watch as it is to figure out. It takes great confidence to present a tale in such a way, as the potential to confuse the viewer is very high, but Maslona successfully guides us through how it all links together. This message seems to be that one bad deed can easily beget another and that no sin is too small in the larger scheme of things. Like “Pulp Fiction”, the non-linear storytelling is a clever way of hiding a moral without having to put too fine a point on it.

There are some flaws, however. Firstly, the stories are disproportionately balanced – with some given greater dramatic weight and more running time than others, it begs the question of why they were included in the first place. If the film was really trimmed with mathematical precision, then the dramatic impact would’ve been a whole lot stronger. Additionally, like “Twarz”, the other big Polish film of the year so far, “Panic Attack” melds comedy and tragedy so much that it can be hard to distinguish one from the other. The problem here is the tonal shifts can be a little odd, creating a flat feeling when they should really be cranking up the heat. Nonetheless, in the way it takes such a simple idea like having a panic attack and turns it into a bizarre yet satisfying cinematic tour de force, Maslona has established himself as an exciting new voice in Polish cinema.

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