Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The Lure was not, by most metrics, a hit, but it wasn’t a failure either; it made a small amount of money in its theatrical run, garnered positive critical notices, and eventually found its way to a place in the Criterion Collection’s catalog. Compared to that, the director’s followup is destined to seem modest: Fugue‘s U.S. release comprises a 30-day run on MUBI, and since it’s essentially a form of domestic drama — that being a harder sell in a crowded market than the high-concept uniqueness of The Lure, a musical film about vampiric mermaids — it isn’t likely to have the same, lasting cult appeal. Straightforward though it is, Smoczyńska’s new film is possessed with a strong sense of perspective, and populated with impressive, interior-focused performances. Alicja (Gabriela Muskala), an amnesiac woman drifting through Warsaw, is reunited with the family she’s been separated from for the last two years. She reenters a house full of strangers, thrust back into the roles of wife and mother, her transient life rejected. But Alicja is no longer Kinga, the woman her family remembers; gone is her long blonde hair and respectable coat, replaced with a dark pixie cut and loose-fitting t-shirts, signifying her rejection of traditional femininity. More than mere rebellion, though, Fugue is concerned with Alicja’s sense of alienation from her home life.
Smoczyńska questions the contrivance of women’s roles in marriage and motherhood, using amnesia to create that critical distance. The trouble is that Fugue never reaches beyond this conclusion.
Smoczyńska’s camera makes estrangement its primary subject: When Alicja enters her parents’ home for the first time, the frame stays tight on her, following her upstairs and through hallways, panning to reveal rooms as Alicja discovers them, presenting the experience as alien and new. Fugue produces an abject disconnect between Alicja and her former identity of Kinga, and while there’s little in the way of plot here, the struggle to uncover the reasons why she left this family in the first place keep the possibility of Fugue becoming a thriller at the margins, infecting the film with an air of mystery that threatens to unravel the reconstructed domestic scenario. The point throughout is clear: Smoczyńska questions the contrivance of women’s roles in marriage and motherhood, using amnesia to create that critical distance. The trouble is that Fugue never reaches beyond this conclusion, which it arrives at in its first half-hour — and this thesis, in and of itself, is nothing new. That women feel alienated by the structures of domesticity is a cornerstone of feminist film, and of other films at the parameters of that framework (like those of Lars von Trier). Still, Fugue is a welcome addition to this group, worthwhile for the merits of its filmmaking — but it rarely surprises, nor does it break the mold.
You can currently stream Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s Fugue on Mubi.