Grasshopper Films

Apolonia, Apolonia Review: Two Women, Two Artists, One Shared Portrait

Lea Glob's portrait of Apolonia Sokol is two-pronged coming-of-age tale

9 mins read

Apolonia, Apolonia
(Denmark/Poland/France, 115 min.)
Dir. Lea Glob


Does quality art come only through time and experience? Lea Glob’s years-in-the-making Apolonia, Apolonia probes the artistic process in all its highs and lows with its observation of painter Apolonia Sokol and her coming of age. The documentary, which won top prize at IDFA 2022 and landed on this year’s Oscar shortlist among numerous accolades, offers a probing consideration of the tenacity and commitment it takes to make it professionally as an artist.

But the real ruse of the film is that this consideration is twofold. Sokol’s journey as an artist is intimately linked with Glob’s coming-into-being as a filmmaker. The struggles and rewards that Glob observes in Sokol’s dogged quest to be a professional painter offer a spot-on reflection of her commitment as a filmmaker. This unique longitudinal project offers a fascinating window into the genesis of two artists.

Glob contextualises her relationship with Sokol while filming a birthday party. It’s 2013 and the women have a good relationship. There’s obvious comfort and intimacy, as Sokol readies for the celebration without any self-consciousness around the camera. Cut back to 2009 and Glob continues in voiceover. She describes how she met Sokol and tells why this fiery young aspiring artist struck another budding creating as an ideal figure of a film.

Sokol’s story has lots of rich material for a documentary. It’s easy to see the initial attraction. A child of maverick artists, creativity flows through Sokol’s blood. Glob tells how Sokol’s parents owned a theatre in Paris, which Apolonia called home while trying to life la vie bohème. Moreover, Sokol recounts how her parents, who dabbled in video art and diaries, recorded intimate moments as if predicting their daughter’s documentary destiny. For example, Sokol shares a video labelled “Don’t watch until you’re 18” and the image cuts to a VHS shot of her parents in bed. It’s the moment of her conception—the right blend of beautiful, thoughtful, and awkward to inspire a creator.

Add to this bohemian lifestyle a cadre of fiery women activists, and there are further seeds for a documentary. At some point in her early years, Sokol, now living in the space above the theatre, takes in her Ukrainian refugee friend, Oksana. The young woman, an activist by trade but visibly directionless, happens to be a founding member of the feminist activist group Femen. The theatre quickly becomes overrun with strays—activists and cats alike—as Sokol offers a roof for these women fighting the good fight. Glob observes as Sokol becomes a reluctant caregiver to the Femen activists, while the group’s presence makes the theatre a target of misogynistic violence. Sooner than later, Sokol realizes that her boho fantasy needs realignment.

So too does it become clear that Glob is no longer making the documentary she probably thought she was filming. In the early stages, Sokol’s paintings display extraordinary potential. She has an eye for colour and texture, and a real affinity for humanising portraiture. But when her cohabitants overwhelm her time, and she commits herself to her studies at the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris and lands some gallery exhibitions, she encounters concerning critical consensus. Her current output is competent, but beneath the potential of the fiery artist yearning to be unleashed. Even a non-discerning viewer can see that it is limited work.

Glob’s camera observes the sheer volume of art that Sokol creates to meet the standards for exhibition. The young painter churns out portraits, generally painting people in her close circle. Critics and her patrons continue to offer tough love. When she lands a huge opportunity in Los Angeles, and gets figures like White Lotus director Mike White to pose, a critic observes that she painted her subjects as if they were dead. These inert figures reflect a stifled artist.

What’s bad for Sokol is great for Glob, though. It’s an unfortunate reality of documentary that setbacks in characters’ lives create story arcs for a film. Glob runs with Sokol’s transatlantic quest, but always with a sensitive lens. Apolonia has meltdowns on the sunny beaches of California, tearfully realising that painting professionally might not be in the cards. Someone gives her the advice that the only exit strategy from the arts is to be a good artist, so now Sokol wonders if she seems destined to join the cycle of starving artists.

The lows that Glob observes in Apolonia, Apolonia are tough life-at-crossroads moments. Yet there’s more than a conventional director-subject relationship here. There’s a bond built over time and an empathetic understanding of Sokol’s passion. Like Apolonia, Glob has an eye for portraits. She understands that the more time one spends with a subject, the more dimensions her portrait assumes.

Sokol gets this awakening, too. Constructive criticism at another disappointing exhibition advises her to stop rushing her portraits to meet expectations. Many hours, many strokes, and many tubes of paint later, images that were once flat and lifeless become dynamic and vibrant. A star of the art scene is born.

Throughout this two-pronged journey, Apolonia, Apolonia sees how Sokol continually butts heads with the male-driven canon. The curators are men, the gallerists are men, the critics are men, and the arts patrons are men. It takes women to recognise the artist’s hand. There’s an observant woman curator of Sokol’s generation who offers a breakthrough, but Glob proves Sokol’s most perceptive critic.

This fact comes simply by observing the fruition of her artistic process. Over time, the two women discuss motherhood, their creative impulses, and the societal constraints that shape their paths. Sokol experiences great loss during these years, while Glob becomes a mother and nearly dies while bringing new life into the world. Apolonia, Apolonia, with its effectively doubled title, understands that the women’s personal and professional lives are intimately linked.

Apolonia, Apolonia observes how art isn’t a quick and dirty process, but rather something that evolves through time and experience. It’s a portrait of sticking to it and seeing the work through, and giving something of oneself in the process. While making portraits of so many people throughout her life, it’s perhaps only appropriate that the best portrait to which Sokol’s committed has been one of herself—by an artist who truly gets her.


Apolonia, Apolonia opens in Toronto on Feb. 23 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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