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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite the strange tale it initially seems to be."
3 stars

It looks like the makers of "Fugue" are going for horror at first, both from the creepy animated titles and the initial tendency to spring hostility on the audience when most will expect something else. It'd be an exciting, against-expectations gambit if director Agnieszka Smoczynska hadn't previously made "The Lure" (a horror-tinged period mermaid musical that was genre-confounding in a different way), but still has exciting potential. It ends up going in a different direction, and while the sincerity it embraces is laudable, it proves to be a somewhat harder path to walk.

Two years ago, a woman staggered into a Warsaw train station via the tracks and immediately demonstrated that something within her had come undone, and wasn't repaired by the time she recently got in a fight with a police officer. Doctor Michal Nowakowski (Piotr Skiba) finds the amnesiac "Alicja" (Gabriela Muskala) is still in a fugue state, and suggests she appear on a television news broadcast to see if anyone recognizes her. Her father in Wroclaw (Zbigniew Walerys) does immediately, saying her name is Kinga Stowik, and soon she's heading home. It's not a happy reunion - husband Krzysztof (Lukasz Simlat) is still angry at her for seemingly abandoning him and their son Daniel (Iwo Rajski) at the worst possible time - and Daniel starts to act out with more than Krzystof's angry words. Alicja, for her part, feels no connection and doesn't intend to stay longer than necessary to get a usable set of identity papers.

Star Gabriela Muskala also wrote the screenplay, and there seems to be a bit of a split between what was more fun to create and what was more rewarding in both roles. In her early scenes she plays Kinga/Alicja as seemingly possessed, sneering at any attempts to help her and flashing a toothy smile as situations erupt into chaos. She's at least outwardly sinister and disruptive in situations when most would likely be frightened or confused, or maybe relieved, and there's a dark delight to the way she looks at people who think they're entitled to something from her and tells them to go to hell. That Lukasz Simlat gets to similarly break the mold as Krzysztof, purely angry at his apparently-dead wife resurfacing, is similarly unsentimental, priming the audience for fireworks.

It may lead the viewer down the wrong path, though, as the creepy imagery and raw ingredients of a thriller never gel into that sort of genre film. That's fine, but the process of healing is not so exciting or presented in the short of detailed way that someone eager to see how it works would be satisfied. Alicja just sort of settles into Kinga's life as she waits for her paperwork to be processed, and while there's quite possibly a lot of truth to this, it makes for a somewhat jarring transition as the film doesn't have time to show daily process of adaptation. It doesn't quite jump straight from a scene where Alicja wakes up to find Daniel has put thumbtacks in her bed to them playing together, but there aren't enough checkpoints in between that the audience can feel like they're measuring progress.

On a scene-by-scene basis, it still works fairly well. Muskala never loses Alicja underneath the less-defiant stance she takes as she integrates more into Kinga's life, and Simlat's Krzysztof becomes more understandable even if the audience never entirely warms to him - he's been hurt, but there's enough abrasive there that the audience doesn't feel the world owes him a fully-restored Kinga. Smoczynska also does nice work alternating between the weird - whether it be visions of Alicja/Kinga climbing out of a grave or the unsettling nature of an MRI - and the relatively mundane. The film is nicely understated as Smoczynska and Muskala sort things out, not over-dramatizing the eventual connection of dots but still letting it land with some impact.

The makers of "Fugue" never squander their intriguing premise; it's just never quite as exciting as the more sensationalistic (or more clinical) other ways it could go. That's not necessarily a completely fair criticism - dealing with trauma can't be easily reduced to something as clean as a cinematic thriller! Indeed, it's a perfectly decent take on this sort of situation, and it's not like everything Smoczynska does is going to be the exact same variety of madness as her first feature.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32916&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/21/19 12:30:41
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