Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Agnieszka Smoczyńska's Fugue (2018), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from April 12 – May 11, 2019 in MUBI's The New Auteurs strand.
Most people would empathize with a woman who lost her memory, but what if she preferred not to regain it? Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s second feature, Fugue,is a pronounced psychological exploration of trauma and personal choice of what not to be. Intertwined with dreams and fantasy sequences, the film reinvents the notion of (female) agency with the freedom of merging worlds, similar to the etherealness of Fugue’s genre-bending predecessor, The Lure (2016).
In her astonishing debut, Smoczyńska weaved a universe of myth and social reality by presenting man-eating mermaids and their institutional bind to a performance cabaret. This time around, her sophomore feature is more self-contained and introspective, while eluding simple psychological diagnosis. The story follows loner Alicja (an exceptional Gabriela Muskala, also wrote the script) who has no recollection of a previous life, until her family reaches out to reveal her actual name is Kinga—a loving wife and mother. Even though the film is named after the protagonist’s condition of dissociative or psychogenic fugue which is similar to trauma-induced amnesia, its focus shifts from identity loss to identity formation. In this way, Fugue offers a cinematic language that functions as both a hammer and a chisel to crack the notion of the self as a solid substance, to reverberate its rough edges in a new shape: a transformation of female identity against social and contextual expectations.
The palimpsest nature of the title combines psychological, musical, and etymological connotations, all of which contribute to a richer understanding of the film’s structure and drive. Fugue derives from the Latin “fugere,” “to flee,” recalling the political figure of the refugee—propelled to leave a home behind, remaining astray. Similarly, the film opens with a well-dressed but filthy figure faltering on the train tracks in a Warsaw subway station. A slow-paced camera follows the woman as she captures the anonymous gaze of commuters, her messy blonde hair a mere reminiscence of a glossy look, as she towers high on her stilettos. Right until she squats down and urinates in the middle of the platform. In the disgusted stares lies a social exclusion of someone who has fallen from richness but still bears the middle-class insignia—a princess turned pauper, stripped of identity and memory. The stench of trauma recalls a runaway act of a fugitive.
A rapid cut indicates that two years have passed and that the new woman is one but not the same. Short, unkempt dark hair instead of the blonde waves adorn this languished face, brimming with contempt in a doctor’s office. Strong contrast separates shadows from the sterile hospital lights, painting a ghostly picture of Alicja, who by habit signs KS on the release papers. Her story is featured in a “Lost and Found” TV show, the setting mirrors the hospital’s piercing whites, this time the spotlight emphasizing the young woman’s identity as a grey zone. Grey and bleak is also a description of her face when a caller states that she is his lost daughter, Kinga. While the man’s voice is breaking, Alicja/Kinga’s eyes are immobile and blank, hinting the impossible reconciliation that will follow.
Deadpan atmosphere poisons the abundant decor in the family’s richly ornamented house, as Kinga is welcomed with a sombre distance. As if the walls cave in, the furniture oppresses her as much as her demented grandmother (a curved mirror image of herself?), a house that is not a home swaps nostalgia for claustrophobia. Previously a devoted mother and a caring wife, as the family recounts, Kinga’s new self has nothing but contempt for her husband Krzysztof (ever-calm Lukasz Simlat) and her young son Daniel (Iwo Rajski), who prefers to call another woman “Mom” and sabotage her sleep by sprinkling her bed with drawing pins. The boy’s micro-aggression reflects Kinga’s sense of being adrift and her uncanny presence in the house fails to fill it with memories of the missing years. An arresting sequence finds her looking at a tape of her younger self breastfeeding baby Daniel, yet the camera is so densely focused on her unchanging face that it suffocates any possible rapprochement and states this woman’s personhood does not equal motherhood. The dysfunctionality of Kinga in her new/old family is carefully paced: her physical movements are slow and refined, expressive with their austerity, her body is choreographed to be the opposite of melodramatic gesture as a spring of emotions. Muskala’s acting is superb in its subdued physicality: it bends emotional currents inwards, rather than proposing an articulate body-psyche dichotomy.
Interrupted by dream-like sequences and fantasy interludes, Fugue dissolves its own claims for singularity, as the protagonist drifts farther away from any coast of familiarity. The coexistence of reality and a surreal world of dreams seem more appropriate for the storytelling than flashbacks. Such a strict separation between past in present in the narrative flow becomes fluid when a brain scan rhythmically bursts with flowers as the lobes light up and blossoming petals fill up the frame. Smoczyńska possesses the delicate touch to stitch reality and fantasy in a manner comparable to Hong Sang-soo’s gentle transitions in time, governed by desire. A heart-warming walk on the beach brings Kinga and her son in emotional proximity if only for a moment, as it soon shifts to an uncanny panic-driven sequence when the camera pans to reveal her son has disappeared. Imbued with self-doubt, reality becomes painfully sensorial especially when it’s slipping away. That fine line between madness and self-assertion fascinates Smoczyńska and she governs the domain of uncertainty with grace and profound attention to detail. A camera pan that turns dream into nightmare, a long take close-up of an eye that sees nothing but its own reflection, all drenched in a downbeat yellow-blue-grey color scheme, Jakub Kijowski delivers world-altering images as much as he did for The Lure.
In the musical sense, a fugue is a theme that retains its character and pulse while encountering contrapuntal melodies; while singularity is maintained, minor alterations occur in the stream of interactions. In a similar mode, Alicja/Kinga’s mind has been made up regardless of her psychological condition: neither to be a wife nor a mother. Her interactions with relatives and close family may sway her in exploring another tonality of her persona, yet she arrives at herself again: blankness in the eyes equals self-assertion. In an emblematic dance scene, tuned to Michelle Gurevich’s “Perfect Strangers,” the separation of Kinga and Krzysztof is pronounced through their momentary intimacy. Mimicking each other’s movements in a trance-like routine, their bodies tell a story of impossible connection. Suspended in desire, they mirror each other in the way a fugue interacts with its counterpoint melody: fitting but fleeing. The sound design glides effortlessly through emotional waves that the characters fail to express verbally. In the long pauses, much of what remains unsaid is conveyed by Filip Mísek’s maddening, eerie score. Fugue is a film about the ineffable choices one makes that are counter-intuitive and society has deemed detrimental: a mother abandoning her family, and most of all, her child. Exploring this social counter-narrative, Agnieszka Smoczyńska enhances the moral dilemma with a transformative rebellion regarding traditional norms, while showcasing how a musical theme, a psychological disorder, and social activism form an uncanny and enigmatically beautiful film world.