The first feature by the conceptual Polish artist Piotr Uklanski, Summer Love is a mock spaghetti western that manages to be both parody and homage, albeit less western than spaghetti. Or rather “kielbasa,” to use the term that’s been applied to the 50 or so amateur oat-operas made over the past two decades by Uklanski’s countryman Josef Klyk.
Beginning with its vertiginous opening shoot-out, Summer Love is characterized by some credibly mad filmmaking. Uklanski is adept at playing the angles, both in terms of camera placement and genre derangement. Val Kilmer is present as the obligatory American star: His character is known as the Wanted Man, and he’s a corpse, and a potentially valuable one, for the entire movie. The other players are drawn mainly from the Polish stage, although Boguslaw Linda, who plays the world-weary Sheriff, will be familiar to fans of Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski. The cast speaks heavily accented English and looks subtly off—too beaten-down to be real cowboys. (Uklanski is a student of iconography: His most famous piece is a photographic installation of glamorous male movie stars costumed in Nazi regalia.)
Summer Love, however cheerfully titled, is essentially an angst-ridden kammerspiel. The Stranger (Karel Roden) rides into town with the Wanted Man’s corpse and gambles away his bounty before he can even collect it. Most of the action is confined to a miserable one-room saloon amusingly named the French Palace—a place of buzzing flies and perpetual rain, where grizzled plug-uglies mumble into their vodka and make leering passes at the tough, ample barmaid (Katarzyna Figura). Space is elastic, with exterior locations cleverly constructed out of an abandoned quarry and what appears to be a stretch of Baltic beach doubling as the desert. The twangy musical score takes a respite from faux Morricone-isms to incorporate the deadpan insanity of Lorne Greene’s 1966 ballad “I Am a Gun.”
The western trappings become increasingly alien as the movie evolves, spasm by spasm, into a ritual played out around and about Kilmer’s increasingly mutilated body—the drama’s written in blood, sweat, and tears, among other bodily secretions, on the faux desert sands. With its scaffolding and half-wrecked buildings, Uklanski’s set comes to resemble a derelict performance site. The artist has a sardonic sense of apocalypse: Summer Love reaches its sodden climax when the gallows under construction for most of the movie comes crashing through the French Palace roof, and the Sheriff reduces the reward for the Wanted Man to a frugal $250.