In a single, fluid, slightly woozy shot, the camera tracks a blonde woman from behind as she staggers along parallel tracks in a rail tunnel (with trains passing by perilously close) and clambers up onto the crowded platform in incongruous high heels, crouches over and urinates then and there on the floor. This is the opening sequence of Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s Fugue (Fuga), so called because its protagonist is, as we shall shortly find out, in a trauma-induced dissociative fugue state, with no memory of who she is or where she has come from. Two years later, ‘Alicja’ (the extraordinary Gabriela Muskala, carrying the whole film), now with short hair and still suffering from amnesia, is persuaded by psychiatrist Michal (Piotr Ksiba) to appear on television as an alternative to a prison sentence for assaulting a police officer. She is recognised as Kinga by her lost family, and finds herself being returned to the home of her forgotten husband Krzysztof (Lukasz Simlat) and young son Daniel (Iwo Rajski).
Following her first feature, the musical mermaid coming-of-age parable The Lure (Córki Dancingu, 2015), Smoczyńska’s second full-length film also focuses on alienated female experience, while this time around preferring a mode of slowly unfolding human mystery to piled-on oddities. Fugue is a drama in which a woman struggles to relate to her former loved ones, while also wondering what led her to flee in the first place. The name that Kinga had adopted during her two years of physical and mental absence aligns her to Lewis Carroll’s Alice lost down the rabbit-hole, and the heroine – ill-mannered, shameless, spiritedly independent – is uncertain not just of her own identity, but also of her family’s, so that she is not unlike the Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother (Lucja Burzynska) at the lunch where they are all first reunited. The scene in which Kinga and Daniel playfully mislabel ordinary household items with post-it notes similarly reflects her dissociation and her need to relearn a world whose rules she sees as arbitrary. Kinga intends to stay with Krzysztof only until a new ID card is processed to replace the one that she lost two years earlier, but as she dances with her husband – significantly to Michael Gurevich’s Lovers Are Strangers – and starts tentatively growing closer to him while also rebuilding a bond with Daniel, she starts to imagine staying. Kinga’s initially aggressive aloofness thaws along with the snow outside, as winter gradually turns to the renewal of spring.
Fugue, however, is not some daft romantic comedy. Whether in the railway tunnel, on a windy, desolate beach, in a forest or a field, Kinga is often shot wide (by DP Jakub Kijowski) to emphasise her isolation – and the more she returns to being a warm, smiling member of the family, the closer she gets to remembering why she left in the first place, ensuring that her gradual recovery is a process of internal conflict as much as of reintegration. The expectation, and the pressures that come with that expectation, that she somehow rightly belongs with her husband are repeatedly called into question. So her flight is also a severing of (mostly) unwanted ties, and a striking out for feminist freedom. The results are an achingly bittersweet blend of tragedy and recovery. For, in choosing to be fugitive, Kinga is being true to herself rather than to the demands of others, and becoming who she might always have been.
© Anton Bitel