at Fantastic Fest, Austin Review by Kristy Puchko
In 2016, Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska made a splash with her directorial debut The Lure, a heady horror-musical about man-eating mermaids. For her latest, Smoczynska has left behind the spectacle of blood, monsters, and burlesque numbers. But her biting brand of observational humor makes the daring drama Fugue a fitting and fantastic follow-up.
Written and starring Gabriela Muskala, Fugue follows woman through an unusual journey home. With a prim blond bob and a posh but stained trenchcoat, Kinga (Muskala) walked away from her cozy life in rural Poland, surfacing on the train tracks of Warsaw’s Central Railway with no memory of who she is. Two years later, she calls herself Alicja, favors a short, spiky brunette hairdo, skin-tight cheetah-print jeans, and a festering bad attitude. A brawl with a cop has her in hot water, but the court might go easy on her if she can be returned to the custody of her forgotten family. A TV appearance quickly solves that mystery. But as Alicja crashes back into the life of her long-lost husband and young son, she must uncover not only who she was but also what happened that caused her dissociative fugue.
Much like The Lure, Fugue dips its toe into several genres. Its premise is thriller, playing at the mystery of this marriage that went so off the rails that her husband Krzysztof (Lukasz Simlat) never went looking for her. As these two old flames circle each other–with doubt and curiosity–sparks fly, igniting a fascinating but fragile romance. And caught up in all of it is the heart-breaking domestic drama of a young boy who doesn’t know how to handle this home-crashing stranger that people say is his mom. Amid weighted glances, feral sex scenes, and a guest bed booby-trapped with pushpins, Smoczynska also unfurls a tantalizing thread of satirical humor.
There’s an element of juicy rebellion to Alicja, who rejects the name, identity, home, and role the world insists is hers. Through smudged eyeliner and a scornful side-eye, she wilts her weepy mother, confounded spouse, and former co-worker. Her attitude is that of a teenager, righteously reckless. And through her, we see the lunacy of the puzzle-piece life her family would lock her back into. So she rebels in ways wild and hilarious. When her clothes go missing, she stands naked and defiant in the kitchen, a thick bush of out-and-nonchalant pubic hair mocking her parents’ frantic insistence to carry on with their cheery routine. But Fugue does not laugh at her audaciousness, instead contrasting how absurd so-called “normal” people behave.
The standout sequence is a double date where Krzysztof and Alicja half-heartedly attempt to play husband and wife. Cut to a restaurant where an obnoxious man speaks on his cellphone at top volume. Ignoring the couple and his wife, who exchange increasingly bemused glances, this crass fool asks probing questions in a bored tone about the caller’s diseased liver, then abruptly remarks he should get off the phone. It is his 10thanniversary celebration after all. Muskala’s script sets up the lunacy of this moment that feels all-too possible, then spikes it with Alicja’s snarky attempt at small talk. This hysterically awkward dinner fades into dancing. But not the cheek-to-cheek loveliness that often makes us swoon for cinema’s lovers. This is something stranger, darker, and undeniably sensual that pulls us into what feels like a warped but wondrous rom-com. But that’s just the beginning.
Like The Lure, Fugue is brilliant. Smoczynska’s feature films thus far reject playing by the rules. She gives us complicated female characters who smirk, fuck, and fuck shit up. She rides tones through her films like waves, taking us on an exhilarating journey that transcends genre, and spills into unpredictable destinations. She looks into the darkness of the human heart, digs her fingers in, and pries out something bloody, beautiful, and defiantly funny. Through her stories of wild women, she shines a light into the darkness and invites us to laugh.
Fugue made its North American Premiere at Fantastic Fest
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com