Prison would be better.
Stories dealing with amnesia generally gravitate towards a heartwarming conclusion wherein a character regains his/her bearings to live happily ever after within the life they lost. This reality is due to the fact that the afflicted is often found soon after the incident that’s left them unfamiliar with their former self. They wake up without knowing who they are, quickly become confronted with people who do, and ultimately work towards bridging the gap. What happens, though, if the time separating disappearance and reunion is much longer? If two years go by without anyone having discovered where you’ve been or where you’ve gone, you have no choice but to start anew. This means creating a different identity that probably won’t be anything like your old one. You become reborn.
It’s a fascinating avenue on a familiar trope and neither director Agnieszka Smoczynska nor writer/star Gabriela Muskala is pulling punches while driving down it on Fuga [Fugue]. There’s no grace period with which to realize this truth either when the opening scene of a tired, confused, and dirty Alicja (Muskala) shows her rising from darkened train tracks onto a platform of onlookers to do something no one (yourself included) will ever forget. The filmmakers are ensuring we know this woman isn’t well—something they corroborate after a “Two years later” interstitial reveals a bruised and battered face. We don’t need a rundown of what she’s done since that first scene because we learn those actions left her a choice: find her family or go to jail.
She chooses the former before discovering the latter might have been better in the long run since being forced to live with strangers proves a prison of sorts in and of itself. Her family might actually feel the same too after seeing what their “perfect” daughter/wife/mother Kinga has become. We catch the looks of sadness they can’t help making now that the upstanding member of society they lost has returned a seeming scourge upon it. Her parents are shocked, her husband (Lukasz Simlat‘s Krzysztof) angry, and her son (Iwo Rajski‘s Daniel) afraid. They too have moved on—whether they’ll admit as much or not (see Malgorzata Buczkowska‘s Ewa, Kinga’s old friend and possible new woman in Krzysztof’s life trying to quietly wade through a complex situation).
With brief vignettes showing the light-haired Kinga buried under soil in nightmarish circumstances, though, we have to believe the past is clawing back to reclaim what was lost. We believe it despite Alicja showing few signs of complying. She merely hopes to get a valid ID card and go back to living the life she’s created for herself without these desperate people willing her to be someone else. With a three-week waiting period to do so, however, Alicja is stuck getting to know them regardless. Krzysztof and Daniel might not even be that bad after a couple days of adjusting recalibrate the young boy into accepting this woman as his mom. Maybe they can make a new life together from the ashes of old until Kinga climbs out.
Thankfully Smoczynska and Muskala have crafted something much more melancholic than that. I’m not saying Fugue couldn’t have been as successful as it is if it worked along conventional lines, but that its ability to shine its characters in dramatic honesty helps it ascend even higher. Because those metaphorical glimpses of a trapped identity searching for an escape might not be metaphor at all—their existence as memory allowing the film to take on a whole new intent. This wasn’t a happy life fractured by accident, but a troubled one that provided escape for everyone involved. It’s easy to believe that love will conquer all until you acknowledge how love might not factor in. What if the consciousness Alicja’s fugue state lost ends up making things worse?
This reality lends itself well to authentic human drama beyond cliché. It also allows for the duality of Alicja’s situation to tear her apart. Because she’s Daniel’s mother, a part of her does feel connected to him. So while her ambition is to leave, the desperation of losing him in a scenario not of her choosing can’t help rise to the surface. It’s therefore in traumatic moments of narrowly missing a deer on the road or losing track of Daniel at the beach that flood her with a big enough wave of emotions to open the door her mind closed. It’s devastating to discover that while being a stranger to her son allows for the formation of joy, her memories of being his mother can steal it away.
Muskala is phenomenal in the role with her hardened persona gradually fading so that trust and compassion can be exposed. There are many moments that had me laugh out loud simply because she’s so vehemently against this exercise in futility and even more resentful of these people forcing it upon her. She doesn’t want to wear their clothes or shut her mouth out of civility when they act a fool. Alicja is free to speak and do what Kinga couldn’t (look at how bottled-up Klara Bielawka‘s Justyna is in accepting so much without a peep). In some regards Krzysztof and Daniel like this change because it lends a sense of pleasure (sexual and fun respectively) Kinga’s more conservative self didn’t. But it also cements that she’s not theirs.
And that can be okay. For all we know Alicja is who Kinga always wanted to be and this fugue state unlocked a sense of self the rote machinations of suburban life couldn’t. That a horrible tragedy triggered the change can end up a bittersweet blessing in disguise too considering the helplessness created laid bare how stifled and unhappy Kinga, Krzysztof, and Daniel were. Muskala is thus providing them all a second chance both through her performance and script. Whether it’s one that finds them together or apart shouldn’t matter as long as they work towards the happiness that eluded them. American cinema steeped in puritanical Christian family values rarely gives characters that choice. Saying goodbye, however, is sometimes the greatest expression of love that exists.