A woman stumbles through a tunnel towards an underground station. She is smartly dressed but unkempt, dirt covered and confused as to her whereabouts. Nobody talks to her or approaches her but the stare with confusion and disdain as she looks around in a daze. Then she squats to the floor and urinates. Cut to two years later and the same amnesiac woman is in custody for assaulting a police officer. She has two options: Prison or a flashy T.V. appearance to locate her family. She is quickly sent back to the husband and child she has completely forgotten about. Now going by the name Alicja (although she is named Kinga), she is unrecognizable to her loved ones but unsure if she even wants to remember her own life.
The Polish film-maker Agnieszka Smoczyńska made an auspicious directorial debut with The Lure, a fascinating and utterly bonkers snyth-pop musical about killer mermaids that immediately became a cult favourite upon release. Where that film was flashy and giddily deranged, throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck, Fugue is a far more stripped-back affair, one deliberately aiming for something more controlled but no less effective.
If The Lure was your jam - and it should be because it’s brilliant, one of the best directorial debuts of the decade - then you may come to Fugue with a touch of disappointment. It all seems too normal by comparison, a sober and quieter affair, a narrative more concerned with the ambiguity of identity than big musical numbers or cannibalism. But what her follow-up film offers is an opportunity for Smoczyńska to demonstrate the other side of her directorial range. Fugue has moments of flashier visuals (including some gorgeous but all-too brief opening credits), but this is a story of people, the claustrophobia of the domestic (especially for women), and the lies of identity.
In this journey, she is helped enormously by Gabriela Muskała, her leading lady. Alicja/Kinga returns to her family home without her past but also free of the person she used to be. With short hair she seems to have cut herself, a chain-smoking habit and casual attitude towards sex and nudity, she is the polar opposite of the seemingly obedient wife and mother her family crave the return of. Muskała radiates prickly energy, playing her role(s) as a woman who is all too used to living with barriers up 24/7. When glimmers of memory return to her, as well as moments of maternal yearning for the son who seems both angry and intrigued by his newly returned mother, the pain of such moments are evident. Her frustration over her lack of memory is in conflict with her obvious disdain for the stranger she once was, someone who was seemingly happy to placate and be what others needed her to be. Matters are not at all helped by her husband’s inability to talk to her and the secrets he’s keeping hidden from her.
The film is at its best when its starkly real. The cinematic sub-genre of ‘amnesiac rediscovers their old life’ is an oddly popular one and also one prone to unnecessarily saccharine interpretations. How many times have you seen this psychological turmoil played for romantic melodrama, with the sufferer learning to love their partner once more without any of the hassle of the side-effects of brain trauma? In Fugue, there is no romanticism to be found with Alicja/Kinga’s predicament, only uncertainty. Even in moments where she tentatively reconnects with her husband and son, fleeting hints of the sunny life she was promised, you never truly believe these will solve the myriad problems that pushed them apart in the first place. The narrative, like its protagonist, keeps the audience at an arm’s distance, to the point where the futility of her ‘recovery’ becomes frustrating to watch. Then again, that’s the point. There are no easy answers to be found. Why should they be easy? Her life isn’t and probably never was.
Moments of stylistic flourish are peppered throughout what is mostly a very controlled narrative, including the near kaleidoscopic images of CAT scans and one scene on a wind-swept beach that feels like a true descent into madness. But these moments are sporadic, with the majority of the film sticking more to a tried-and-true style of drama. There are echoes of Bergman, inevitably, but the best moments come from Smoczyńska’s inventive use of sound design, with Alicja/Kinga’s claustrophobia conveyed more through the loudness inside her head than her surroundings. However, Smoczyńska chooses to play out Alicja/Kinga’s journey as a mystery, one where the payoff is deliberately frustrating, although a couple twists thrown in the way feel like hints towards a different kind of film that never manifests. That makes the build-up feel unbalanced, if only because the director clearly has so many ideas in her head as to where to take the story but must settle on one.
Fugue is an abrasive film that actively challenges the audience to call out its sullenness. That may prove off-putting for some viewers, but for those willing to stick with it. Smoczynska’s sophomore effort proves to be another sign of her status as a talent to watch. Her next project? A sci-fi crime drama opera based on the David Bowie album Outside. On the strength of her two feature films, this is definitely an ambitious project she has the power to pull off. I can’t wait.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Screen International