International Releases: Fugue (2018) - Reviewed

When you make a big screen directorial debut as audacious, electrifying and wildly original as Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s 2015 surreal musical horror Little Mermaid film The Lure, where do you go from there?  A terrific, fast-paced, delightful and confident introductory chapter unlike anything seen previously in Polish or World Cinema, the film gained instant cult acclaim and cemented Smoczyńska as one of the world’s most exciting cinematic talents.  Reaching her creative and artistic peak far sooner than most directors into their second or third features, the question on the adventurous filmgoer’s mind is what comes next? 
As evidenced by her second feature, the 2018 spooky slow-burn amnesia drama Fugue, for better or worse the only logical step for Smoczyńska was to go in the polar-opposite direction with her next project.  Those accustomed to the wicked energy unleashed in The Lure are in for something of a shock with the languidly placed and quiet creeper that is Fugue, a film that couldn’t be more disparate in tone and form if it tried yet also curiously a kindred thematic spirit to the film before it.  Equally gothic with a rebellious outlook in general, Fugue with its opening animated credits of a centipede coming out of a woman’s mouth immediately followed by the visage of a woman emerging from the darkness to casually squat and urinate on the floor of a public subway signals immediately neither Smoczyńska nor her protagonist are here to play nice.

Written by and prominently starring Gabriela Muskala in the leading role, the film’s confused and embittered heroine Alicja/Kinga (Muskala), stricken with memory loss finds herself whisked back into a world she has no recollection of.  After appearing on a talk show with the hopes of someone recognizing her true identity, she returns “home” to her distant husband Krzysztof (Lukasz Simlat) and young child Daniel (Iwo Rajski) who find her presence just as alien as she does them.  Angered by being forced back into this life, she struts around the house stark naked, smokes and remains hesitant to sign back up into a life mysteriously forgotten.
Fans of the intensely bizarre and entertaining hook of The Lure will be mystified by Fugue’s slow and meandering pacing but will find much to enjoy in Muskala’s screenplay and performance as a middle-aged woman with neither her memory or reasons to care who she offends or steps on in her reawakening.  The Lure cinematographer Jakub Kijowski returns to Fugue with his desaturated dark and deep blue hues and a slow somber dance between Alicja and Krzysztof at a Polish club will remind many of the 1980s club dancing opening the director’s first feature.  New to Smoczyńska’s universe however is Czech composer Filip Mísek who creates an ambient echo chamber soundscape of distant rumblings and gentle unease.  Given how explosive the soundtrack to The Lure was, the subtle quiet by Misek’s electronic score is the sonic equivalent of Smoczyńska pumping the musical brakes.

Closer to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution than the hip and speed demon mermaid musical before it, Fugue will come as something of an underwhelming letdown.  On the film’s own terms, however, it does follow a recurring thematic trend of a woman discovering her identity and beating to the tune of her own drum.  That said I do hope Smoczyńska returns to the energies defining her debut work which for myself is a creative high note for Polish cinema in the new millennia.  Fugue doesn’t quite reach those heights but one can’t help but laud Smoczyńska for daring to sharply turn in the other direction rather than merely repeating herself a second time.

--Andrew Kotwicki