Fugue (Fuga)

Poland (2018) Dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska

Memories are important to us all. To lose them is tragic but an unfortunate inevitability as we get older, or suffer temporary memory loss caused by an accident or trauma. But might there be a situation where being free of bad memories is a positive?

One morning in a Warsaw underground train station, a smartly dressed amnesiac woman (Gabriela Muskala) climbs up from under the platform and staggers past the alarmed commuters. Two years later, the woman, now named Alicja, has been diagnosed with a dissociative fugue that has wiped much of her memories, except from her recent attack on a policeman.

A proviso of her release from hospital without arrest is Alicja appears on TV to appeal for public information regarding her identity. Her father (Zbigniew Walerys) calls into the show, revealing Alicja is actually Kinga. She is reunited with her family but finds her husband Krzysztof (Lukasz Simlat) has another woman, whilst their young son Daniel (Iwo Rajski) doesn’t recognise his mother at all. But Kinga shows no desire to resume her former life, even rejecting her old name, seemingly happier as Alicja.

Written by lead actress Gabriela Muskala, Fugue doesn’t propose to change the amnesia concept too much by exploring the cause and effect of memory loss; instead, the focus is on the struggle to rebuild a life in spite of not knowing what is missing. In her follow up to the abstract musical horror The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczynska presents a sombre, low-key drama determined to give as little away as possible.

This might prove infuriating with a story gravid with questions requiring answers that will help ingratiate the characters to the audience, but both the script and Smoczynska’s direction prefer to keep us at arm’s length. In some ways, it works, preventing the film from being bogged down with endless flashbacks and exposition when the present is just as important, but the tepid pacing and dour mood creates a threatening air of ennui.

Kinga and Alicja may inhabit the same physical body but are two different people beyond their names, in a mental and spiritual capacity. The first hint of who Kinga was is in her attire when she appears from under the train platform – dressed in a smart business suit, high heels, and a thick blonde hair, the opposite of the cropped black hair, t-shirt, leggings, and coarse attitude of Alicja.

By all accounts Kinga was a dutiful wife, a loving mother, and perfect daughter – along with her personality transplant, how had Krzysztof been able to move on with (younger) new flame Ewa (Malgorzata Buczkowska) so quickly and why couldn’t Daniel recognise his own mother if things were so idyllic? The latter question can be answered by Daniel’s age being a factor as kids are likely to forget what the irregular, but the marriage issue needs further inspection.

Except this isn’t on the script’s agenda as even Kinga only returns home to get her new ID card then plans to move on, having decided whatever life she lost isn’t worth trying to reconnect with and restore. This is a curious reaction but two year is a long time to be away from a life you have no recollection of, and Kinga seems more content being the carefree Alicja than whatever she was like before. Inquiring minds want to know and surely, Kinga should be at the head of that queue.

Psychologically, the script barely scratches the surface of the effects Kinga’s absence and return has had on all concerned, whereas the presentation does a better job of building the mystery of what may or may have been. Kinga always seems confident she knows what she wants, but the three-week wait for her ID card means she is forced to stay with Krzysztof and Daniel, and whilst she doesn’t make an effort to fit in, it gets easier as time passes.

Yet, Kinga’s rejection of her old life is never challenged outright, as if the family expect her to snap back into it as if nothing happened. This raises the question of selfishness – is Kinga being selfish in deciding her new start is how she wishes to continue despite her family missing her? Are the family being selfish with their expectations of the status quo being resumed to suit their own ways?

Sexual tension is rekindled between Kinga and Krzysztof, as does the maternal instincts when the hostility from Daniel slowly thaws but complete emotional connection remains unattainable. Surreal flashes of what is either a nightmare or the truth of her past haunt Kinga, recalling the dark fantasy of Smoczynska’s previous film, the light bathed in the same cyan hues for added oneiric effect.

Jacub Kijowski’s camerawork plays a huge part in relaying the internal tumult ravaging Kinga’s head, zipping around her like a buzzing fly to heighten the confusion, or staying at a safe distance in delineating the loneliness and detachment from those she should be at one with again. The brilliance of this is that it isn’t just there for show, each offbeat moment is a clue to what caused Kinga’s disappearance, this eventual revelation being slightly anti-climactic but not without tragedy.

It might be easy to label this a vanity project for Gabriela Muskala in writing the script and taking the biggest role; had she directed it too the accusation has merit, but one can’t fault the raw, mesmeric performance she delivers, keeping Kinga a Rebecca-like ghost looming over Alicja’s ability to move forward. This is not even a schizophrenic character and Muskala acutely avoids playing her as such.

Fugue will be a polarising film depending on expectations for Smoczynska after The Lure. A signature directorial style is cemented, but a deathly sober atmosphere and superficial emotional connection will have some wondering if the fizz from her debut hasn’t already faded. Strong acting and a curious launching point for a well-worn premise counter the palpable emptiness felt by the cast and audience alike.