FUGUE – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Sandwiched between her breakout debut horror/musical/family melodrama The Lure and the 2022 biopic The Silent Twins about voluntarily mute teen sisters June and Jennifer Gibbons, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczyńska‘s Fugue is finally getting a long-overdue limited US cinema release. While a favorite on the festival circuit, Smoczyńska’s sophomore effort risked being lost in the shadow of the pandemic.

The film begins as a dishevelled Alicja (Gabriela Muskala) wanders dazed along train tracks, approaching a busy station where she promptly hitches up her skirt, squats, and pisses on the train platform for all to see. Two years later we find she has been institutionalised, suffering from the dissociative “fugue” of the film’s title, where a protective doctor decides to put her on television to see if they can discover her identity. It works, and overnight Alicja discovers that she is a woman called Kinga with a husband, young child and extended family. Returning to her original home as she waits for an identity card, Alicja’s past slowly returns to her as she discovers what led to her curious predicament.

Although written by and starring Muskala as Alicja/Kinga, what lingers most after Fugue is the range of powerful, unsettling and at times aggressively abstract imagery that Smoczyńska employs to tell her protagonist’s story. Framed as an explicitly feminist portrait of a woman’s journey to find herself, even beyond the powerful opening image of the high heel wearing Muskala peeing in public Smoczyńska seems unhesitatingly determined when it comes to opening up the way that Alicja’s internal life can be made visible on screen.

From an extraordinary image of a bug coming out of her mouth to various underground scenarios that see her buried alive to – perhaps most memorably – a breathtaking animated sequence where flowers bloom out of an MRI scan of Alicja’s brain – the vibrant originality that Smoczyńska made her signature in The Lure is redeployed here in a different yet equally compelling way.

In many ways, the story of a lost suburban mother trying to find the right direction forward for herself feels a million miles away from the glittery fantasy of The Lure’s cabaret singing mermaid sisters, yet at their heart – along with The Silent Twins – Smoczyńska’s fascination with women and the complex intensities of their family bonds lie very much at the heart of her authorial vision. A strange, emotionally intelligent and hugely sympathetic portrait of a woman in crisis, in Fugue Smoczyńska has solidified herself even further as one of the most visionary Polish filmmakers working today.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).