A woman teeters on her heels; unsteady on her feet. She’s walking on a railway line and her clothes are covered in soil. Suddenly, she reaches the station platform, which she then crawls awkwardly upon. She moves in amongst the commuters; the lovers; the travellers. And then, she takes down her skirt and tights, squats in the middle of the crowded platform and pisses.
This is how Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s Fugue starts. As film openings go, it’s incredibly dramatic and bleak; raising far more questions than it answers. It certainly makes you lean that little bit closer to the screen, intent on piecing together the plot that’s about to unravel.
Gabriela Muskala – who also wrote the film – stars as Alicja, the woman on the railway platform. She’s diagnosed as being in a “fugue state” – she has absolutely no memory of who she is and nothing about her identifies where she has come from. An appeal on a TV news show quickly reveals that she is actually Kinga; a wife and mother who disappeared from family life two years ago.
Her elderly parents welcome her with open arms, but her husband Kryzysztof (Lucasz Simlat) and young son (Iwo Rajski) are more aloof. The Kinga they knew has become utterly feral and abrasive. She is rude and, more often than not, in the nude. She shows no signs of warmth or, indeed, interesting her rekindling with her family.
There are horrific flashbacks, showing Kinga buried alive under mounds of soil and there is an extreme sensory overload. In these sequences, the cinematography is striking in its gothic fairytale-like vision. Often, when Kinga is in a new location, the sound and lighting becomes overwhelming. There is a hazy, trippy dance sequence full of fluid movement and thumping music. A trip to the beach becomes nothing more than blinding grey sunlight; rushing waves and howling wind. It’s a very interesting and unsettling experience.
However, what starts off as such a promising thriller – full of furtive glances and potential clues – becomes disappointingly normal. Memory loss, as a plot point, is probably one of the more convenient and overused ones, but I had hoped – owing to the opening scenes – for something a bit more twisted and new. It’s a film that veers from being hostile and fraught to a storyline that is a lot less challenging than it initially promises to be. It’s not that Fugue isn’t bleak, it’s that it’s not bleak enough.
Many critics have observed that Muskala’s script is something of a metaphor for modern Polish women refusing to identify with the traditional national image of the matriarch. I get the visuals – Kinga swaps silky blonde hair and killer heels for spiky black hair and slouchy jumpers – but, for me, that message wasn’t strong enough if it, indeed, was trying to be conveyed.
That’s not to say that the performances are not excellent. Gabriela Muskala delivers a whole range of emotions; from violent and questioning to vulnerable and sensitive. Every inch of her is reacting all of the time and she is able to convey so much through a simple look. She uses her physicality well and commands every scene she is in. Equally, I was surprised by how much I was taken by Iwo Rajski as the young Daniel. Child actors – particularly in tense thrillers – can be a bit of a let down, but he was absolutely enchanting to watch.
Overall, Fugue does make for interesting viewing. There are great central performances and some really interesting visuals. I guess I was just hoping for a more twisted thriller than a traditional family drama.
Fugue is playing at the Glasgow Film Festival as part of the Pioneer strand.