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Someone with amnesia discovering dark secrets must be one of the corniest cinematic cliches going, but Polish-set co-production Fugue manages to spin this material in a newish direction. Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska, whose mermaidcentric curio The Lure had a limited North American release last year, this moody but more conventional drama stars angular Gabriela Muskala, also the film’s screenwriter, as a woman uncomfortably reunited with her husband (Lukasz Simlat) and young son after a two-year absence. Anchored by finely grained performances, even from now-7-years-old Iwo Rajski as the kid, the work examines with unblinking honesty just how friable the bonds can be not only between spouses, but even between mother and child.
It may be a little too honest and chilly for some viewers, but for those who swoon over stark visuals, bleak landscapes and Slavic miserabilism among unhappy families, watching this will feel like every Christmas came at once.
The opening sequence, showing a bottle blonde (Muskala) in high heels and disheveled clothes climbing onto a subway platform from the tracks and then urinating on the ground before shocked onlookers, signals some of the bourgie-baiting attitude yet to come. This defiance of conventional decorum will discomfit prim viewers particularly in Poland, a staunchly Catholic and conformist society.
The plot immediately jumps forward a couple of years, and the woman from the subway now has a spiky, cropped hairdo, leopard-print leggings and goes by the name of Alicja since she can’t remember what her previous name was. Encouraged by her psychiatrist, Michal (Piotr Skiba), Alicja goes on a national TV program to tell her story. While on air, a man (Zbigniew Walerys) calls in claiming he recognizes her as his daughter Kinga who went missing a few years back. A real news story just like this inspired the making of the film.
Alicja/Kinga travels to a rural part of the country to meet her family, who seem like total strangers to her, a tribe that includes her mother (Halina Rasiakowna); her husband, Krysztof (Simlat); and son, Daniel (Rajski), who doesn’t recognize her any more than she recognizes him and calls friend-of-the-family Ewa (Malgorzata Buczkowska) “Mom.” What’s more, Alicja seems totally uninterested in reconnecting with her brood, not even Daniel, and claims all she wants is to get all the paperwork she needs to acquire a new identity card. Sent to live with Krysztof and Daniel, she walks around their spacious country house naked except for an open shirt, laughs inappropriately and glares coldly at anyone who tries to tell her stories about her past life.
Smoczynska and Muskala dole out the revelations about what happened and why in tiny little increments and, unless I missed a major plot point, never quite answer Alicja/Kinga’s question to Krysztof about what went wrong in their marriage. But instead of expository dialogue, clues seem to come from meaningful looks exchanged across rooms, allowing viewers to connect the dots themselves and draw their own conclusion. DP Jakub Kijowski and Smoczynska often frame Alicja/Kinga separately to others in many of the scenes, and numerous long-distance shots using wide-angle lenses create the sense that we’re watching the whole drama unfold through a microscope. Sound and music are similarly chilling, almost mechanical.
A tiny chink of light is let in emotionally by the gradually growing friendship between Alicja/Kinga and Daniel, but the film hints strongly by the end that things will never be how they were. Such a questioning of the primacy of maternal instinct is still an uncomfortable proposition, especially in this more traditional cultural setting. But it’s also the kink that makes the film more interesting than the usual thriller about memory loss.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production: An MD4, Axman Production, Common Ground Pictures production in co-production with Odra-Film, Mazowiecki i Warszawski Fundusz Filmowy, Magic Lab, Michal Krecek, Film i Vast, Tomas Eskilsson, Katarina Krave production
Cast: Gabriela Muskala, Lukasz Simlat, Malgorzata Buczkowska, Zbigniew Walerys, Halina Rasiakowna, Piotr Skiba, Iwo Rajski
Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
Screenwriter: Gabriela Muskala
Producers: Agnieszka Kurzydlo, Karla Stojakova, Jonas Kellagher
Director of photography: Jakub Kijowski
Production designer: Jagna Dobesz
Costume designer: Monika Kaleta
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Music: Filip Misek
Casting: Zywia Kosinka
Sales: Alpha Violet
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