Nina

Poland (2018) Dir. Olga Chajdas

There are many moral dilemmas in life born from acts of altruism and generosity at their purest, fraught with many frustrating complications that are frankly inevitable. Chief among them would be the act of surrogacy, a noble deed blighted by the complexities of human emotion.

For teacher Nina (Julia Kijowska) and garage owner husband Wojtek (Andrzej Konopka), their struggle to conceive a child normally and through fertility treatments has proven fruitless. Official surrogacy channels haven’t helping, and the classifieds have yet to yield a suitable candidate. When airport security worker Magda (Eliza Rycembel) brings her car to Wojtek’s garage to be repaired, he thinks she might be the one and encourages Nina to drive Magda back to home.

When Magda collects her car, Wojtek invites her to dinner and the couple clumsily try to get Magda onside to their plan, thinking they are after a threesome. When told the truth, Madga flees out of embarrassment and because she is a lesbian, though she felt a spark between her and Nina. Deliberately crashing her car again to get close to the couple, Magda ingratiates herself to Nina, helping her concede to her true desires.

Definitely one of the more interesting and modern takes on the love triangle scenario, this film debut from TV director Olga Chajdas throws a decidedly cruel spanner in the already complicated works of the surrogacy process with Nina. Herself a lesbian, Chajdas explores Sapphic sexuality via the unique role reversal of the younger Magda leading the older Nina to her newfound sexual awakening.

Poland is apparently a country where childless women are still stigmatised in society, explaining Nina’s constant dour mien despite being happily married, popular, and good at her job. Her younger sister is getting married and things are buzzing in her life but the cloud of infertility hovers over her head, though it isn’t clear if Nina is the one with the problem.  

Nina meets one prospective surrogate but she insists on staying in the child’s life after giving birth which is not what Nina wants. This would have made for a nice point of discussion referring to the moral dilemma I spoke of earlier, but it this is once and done deal for this story. Obviously this would have turned into a different film entirely had it followed this path but the pay off of Nina getting something of a personality would have been worth it.

As attractive as she is, Nina has no charisma or presence, compared to Wojtek’s boorish roughness and Magda’s punkish party girl energy, and making her the focus is partly why at just over 2 hour long, this film turn into a slog. I was ready to give up at the 90-minute mark, which was unfortunate as the first kiss between Magda and Nina didn’t occur until 75 minutes in.

This is a story that needed a brisker pace; the first hour drags as Nina and Magda glacially bond, which compared to the opening scene in which Magda seduces a woman she frisked at the airport only to be interrupted by Magda’s girlfriend arriving home, makes Nina a real buzz killer in that respect.

It seems oddly backwards being childless in Poland is deemed worthy of scorn yet being gay is acceptable when the norm for most countries is the other way round – not that I’m knocking this. Maybe this is what allowed Chajdas to make this film with such frankness, whilst raising the interesting issue regarding perception of gay people – in this case, Wojtek choosing Magda as his surrogate because he wants to sleep with her.

Somehow the rainbow car key ring Magda proudly sports which Wojtek commented on wasn’t enough of a clue for him or Magda’s refusal to sleep with him to make the baby (which she didn’t actually agree to) was something he took personally and left Nina reeling – at least until she starting to get curious herself though quite where this comes from is not even intimated let alone explored.

Coming from a female director and a gay one at that, the few sex scenes featured aren’t particularly explicit or exceptionally erotic, though Chajdas does create the odd moment of sensuality from them, but not sustainable enough to keep the horndogs invested. The first shared moment between Nina and Magda works well enough as a louche encounter where the doors are opened for the first time but doesn’t burn the screen down.

As a male, the mechanics of lesbian sex is not a specialised subject of mine, but if this film is anything to go by, gay women can bring each other to orgasm by practicing the Heimlich Manoeuvre, unless  cares to tell me otherwise. Under a male director, the sex might have felt tawdry and exploitative so Chajdas at least doesn’t burden the film with anything to disrupt the narrative – the boring “courtship” of Nina and Magda does that instead.

Chajdas shows plenty of innovation and creative flair in some interesting camera angles and shot compositions, but relies too much on genre clichés like the slo-mo dance club scenes to illustrate Nina’s liberation as a gay woman, or Magda’s third act benders in various dives and bars, another staple of the modern relationship drama. Certainly, a tighter script that got to point more would have helped too.

Despite looking like a teen and exuding no discernible sexuality, Eliza Rycembel at least brings a raw energy to her role as Magda but as opined earlier, Julia Kijowska just feels flat and listless as Nina, hinting that maybe the wrong character was chosen to receive the eponymous treatment in the film’s title.

With a lot more to explore than just a closet lesbian being let out, Nina trundles along unsure of what direction it wants to go in, resulting a bloated script that could have achieved more in less time. Not unwatchable, just a tad underperforming given its spicy and socially prevalent central premise.

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