Remember the Promise of a Better Tomorrow is a memoir of Agata Zbylut’s artistic career told in mockumentary format. I wasn’t so sure about this when it started, but it’s actually really fun. Agata lampoons the self-indulgence of such an exercise, playing the 3 talking heads being interviewed who fawn over her genius at first, then slowly lament her degradation into a cliched has-been.
You don’t have to know anything about Agata Zbylut to enjoy watching this movie. The film itself shows her artwork and explores her motivations with each piece. She’s a Polish feminist artist who works mostly in photography and self-portrait. Her work explores the constant tension around the social pressure to fit into what society expects of women, the destiny decided by our biology, and the attempts to rebel against it, which still make it the central point of our focus. Agata’s work kinda explores the inescapability of that narrative, or her feelings of it being inescapable, even when you try to resist or subvert it.
The supposed documentary starts with an art critic and curator, Joanna, lauding Agata’s work and place in history. It also features her lifelong friend Bella talking about what impressive achievements she’s made, and Joachim, an ex-lover and gallery worker, who talks about her eternal beauty and artistic spirit. At first they narrate between them Agata’s entrance into the world of art, her attempts to find her voice as an artist, and her joyful confidence in her first exhibitions.
Then little by little, they start to drop in comments which show her to be callous, inconsiderate, and more than a little self-obsessed. While still ostensibly praising her, their portrait of her as a person starts to melt into that of a neurotic, someone defiantly feminist in their work, but a hot mess in person.
Bella especially starts to lean in to differences between her and Agata, as Bella has married a well-to-do guy, fulfilling her role as wife, looking beautiful and relying on her husband’s money. While they were similar when they were younger, running round with a bunch of men, regrettably, according to Bella, Agata’s need to be the smartest person in room means she scorned settled married life, and decided to project a feminist image of herself, as if she was somehow above the petty concerns effecting other women’s lives. Referencing her work Still Nature, where single Agata takes couples shots with her dog, Bella sighs, “It’s pathetic.”
Joachim plays a discarded lover, who moves around the country to her exhibitions so he can work hanging her photos in galleries. She lifts and lays him, despite him being obviously lovesick for her. When she then seems to have a life crisis in the run-up to 30, she marries and divorces 4 times in quick succession over 2 years. Joachim is heartbroken.
As she starts to enter her 40s, Agata’s work begins to look into aging, and she takes photos of herself using neck tape on her body. Instead of using it to pin back her neck, she uses it to bring together her tummy, or create yonic shapes on her elbows and armpits. Joanna the art critic sighs, finding this exhibition of an aging woman tiresome, a desperate plea for attention devoid of artistic merit. Bella shares gossip with the camera, laughing that although Agata likes to make a show of making a feminist stance on aging, she’s actually had Botox, which was paid for by Bella’s husband. Joachim is just sad, saying Agata put the work up on Instagram for the likes, but got less followers that she thought.
The whole thing is really funny, obviously because it turns one of these artist’s retrospectives into an absolute character assassination instead of the kiss-ass fest they usually are. Given that none of the character’s are real, and Agata herself is playing each role, gives it just a brutal black humour to their takedown of her. And the whole film itself is effectively a film version of what Agata does with her photographs, producing a self-portrait, which reveals insecurity as much as it projects an ideal. An artistic memoir is by its nature self-indulgent, so Agata’s is one where she overtly uses her characters to criticise how self-indulgent she is.
If you are rolling your eyes at the meta, give it a chance. It’s actually really funny and entertaining.