You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Fugue’ Director Agnieszka Smoczynska on Visualizing Memory Loss

In the moody psychodrama “Fugue,” competing in the Polish films section at EnergaCamerimage, Agnieszka Smoczyńska explores memory loss and its devastating impact on family in her follow-up to “The Lure.” Utterly unlike her debut, which was a colorful, musical fantasy focused on mermaids, “Fugue” is a study in perception and emotion in which the lead and writer, Gabriela Muskala, is suddenly discovered wandering and returned to her family two years after disappearing.

What did you learn from your research into the woman who had gone through this actual breakdown?

It was a very strong experience. I was particularly struck by the fact that Maria never really came back from that “other world.” She was talking to us normally, she seemed to remember everything, and yet she seemed somehow suspended between two worlds: the real here and now and the one that wasn’t “real,” the one of her memories.

How did you go about trying to visually portray Alicja/Kinga’s struggle to grasp reality, as in the tense beach scene or the near-miss car collision with a deer?

As subjective as the storytelling is, we wanted the story itself to be framed objectively. Still, there is a scene in which we depart from that strategy: Alicja is revisited by very intense memories and images of her life she’d forgotten. Those images belong to the previous version of herself she feels disconnected with.

They trigger a catatonic state resulting in a heightened sense of perception. We decided to use tight close-ups in order to enter Alicja’s head and show that she starts to perceive details of the material world even though so far she only perceived its general outline.

What was your process of developing the cool, somber tone and look with DP Jakub Kijowski [also known as Kuba Kijowski]?

Kuba and I had the comfort of developing a detailed shooting script together. The story wasn’t spectacular or suspenseful in itself but it was challenging in a very specific way: it really did happen. It affected real people.

We really wanted to understand the nature of memory loss, which led us to meetings with individuals actually afflicted by it. Those meetings made us aware of the true mystery at the center of our story. The key to visual storytelling in “Fugue” was to realize the psychological state of the main character, as well as to empathize with her struggle with the surrounding world.

What’s the main challenge in visualizing the interior state of a main character who is not sure who she really is?

It was Kuba’s idea that we cannot truly understand the main character’s situation and we need to accept that as our default limitation. And that inability mirrored her own. She lacks data, she has gaps in her memory. She has fears, intuitions, anxieties – but no concrete information to seize upon.

That makes her incapable of fully re-entering her family; she can only approach it, but she’s not a part of it. That became the key for developing our visual language, together with the issue of what’s objective and what’s subjective in the story.

So was it essential for you for the audience to see the world from Alicja/Kinga’s point of view?

It became crucial to us since the main character returns to a family she doesn’t recognize: Everything she sees there is new to her, and consequently new to us. That’s why there isn’t a single scene with the main character absent. The camera never abandons Alicja.

That made the storytelling very subjective even though Kuba was using wide lenses and wide shots to remove Alicja from her surroundings and present them as alien to her. Kuba used minimal camera movement in order to subliminally convey the three-dimensional nature of the space and the removal of the characters from spatial background.

What were the main breakthroughs for you in developing the story with your lead actress, Gabriela Muskala, who wrote the script?

The main breakthrough was the moment of finishing the script. She wrote it, on and off, over a period of seven years. I was patient and meantime I did my mermaid-themed debut, “The Lure.” As I was editing that, Gabriela called me and told me she finally finished the script. I read it and I immediately knew I wanted to do it because the idea of a heroine who didn’t really want to recall whom she once was appealed to me tremendously.

Muskała is a writer for theater. Were there elements you felt needed to be more filmic in working with her script?

Gabriela writes plays together with her sister, Monika Muskała. Their main forte is the usage of words. That’s why the first thing I did after I received the script of “Fugue” was to cut it down and sometimes even transform dialogue into images.

In the script, Alicja’s friend tells her soon after her return: “You turned this house into a tomb.”

I decided to cut the scene and replace it with a nighttime vision of Alicja, who sleeps on the bed inside her house for the first time and slides down a grave, all the while hearing her child breathing and her husband humming a lullaby.

Were you interested in exploring the burden of motherhood in this film – and whether sometimes it may be able to crush the individual?

Yes. I wanted to pose a question: whether maternal love is truly unconditional in nature. What happens if we, in fact, forget our child wholly? I believe that’s still a strong taboo – one that we need to break.

You’ve said it was refreshing to embrace a film style and characters so different from those in your first film, but also that it was a challenge to work with a story confined to one marriage and one house. How did you make “Fugue” work on this smaller scale?

I first focused on the cast. It was crucial for me for the actors to share chemistry, and for Krzysztof to carry a mystery inside him, as well. As for the location, the key for us was the question of the possible interplay between the interior of the house and the nature outside.

We knew we were going to shoot in between winter and spring, when nature is mostly dead or dormant. It can be also seen as the sign of the forces of nature creeping from the outside in. We decided to find a house remote from villages and civilization in general. We wanted to stress that the house is a center, surrounded by space and nature, which we present as chilly.

You were called in a Variety review “a stylist of considerable, unpredictable finesse.” How important is the visual ethos of your film in laying out how you will shoot it? And the sound and music?

For me, the visuals and the sound design are equally important. With each new film I’m trying to create a fresh soundscape. In case of “Fugue,” we recorded all the actors’ breathing and footsteps so that even within the side shots we have the feeling of closely following our main character.

I tried to work with silences as much as I could: Filip Misek’s music is minimalist to the extent it often seeps into the sound design by Marcin Lenarczyk and Niklas Skarp. It is the sound that builds our character’s journey from machine towards nature.

Is this what you wanted to convey when you show doctors examining the main character after she reappears from her long journey underground?

The key scene is the CAT scan image of Alicja’s brain. I wanted it to be the breakthrough moment: we see the inside of her brains bursting with colors, with flowers blooming from the inside, and then we hear birds singing, pigeons cooing… Comforting sounds that make us feel good. By that, I wanted to construct the main character’s breakthrough without using psychological means. In fact, for me, the entire film is really a visual-musical composition that carries the emotion inscribed in the script.

More Film

  • Chris Pratt Tom Holland Julia Louis-Dreyfus

    Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer to Voice Pixar's 'Onward'

    Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Octavia Spencer are leading the voice cast for “Onward,” Pixar’s next original movie. Pixar had previously referred to the film as an untitled suburban fantasy. Dan Scanlon, who helmed 2013’s “Monsters University” for Pixar, is directing “Onward.” He’s re-teamed with producer Kori Rae, who also produced “Monsters University.” [...]

  • Steve Carell Welcome to Marwen

    Steve Carell on New Film 'Welcome to Marwen' and Reprising His 'Anchorman' Character

    In 2000, Mark Hogancamp was nearly beaten to death by five men outside of a bar. Left with brain damage and little money to afford therapy, Hogancamp began creating miniature doll versions of himself, his friends, and his attackers as a way to cope. This true story inspired the 2010 documentary “Marwencol” and the upcoming [...]

  • Maniac

    Emma Stone, Darren Criss and More React to SAG Award Nominations

    The nominations for the 25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards were revealed on Wednesday morning, and “A Star Is Born” commanded the list with four noms alongside TV series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Ozark.” The awards recognize acting and ensemble performances across television and film, and this year, plenty of performers will be competing [...]

  • Sterling K Brown The Fence

    Sterling K. Brown to Star in Fox Searchlight's 'The Fence' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Following his SAG nomination for actor in a drama series, Sterling K. Brown is in negotiations to star in Fox Searchlight’s biopic “The Fence,” sources tell Variety. Peter Nicks is on board to direct. George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, who originally brought the book to HBO before it landed at Searchlight, teamed up to adapt [...]

  • Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER..L to R:

    Ryan Coogler on How 'Black Panther' Broke Barriers Below-the-Line, Too

    With more than $1.3 billion at the global box office, “Black Panther” was one of the year’s biggest hits. Though some people expected just another superhero film, the project turned out to be much deeper and more complex than that. Many called it a social turning point because it was the first blockbuster with a [...]

  • Biggest Box Office Hits of 2018

    The Biggest Box Office Hits and Flops of 2018

    It was the revival nobody saw coming. After a dismal 2017, in which the North American box office tumbled to a three-year low, moviegoing rebounded in a big way. And it wasn’t just superhero tentpoles and animated adventures raking in the green. With all due respect to “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” [...]

  • If Beale Street Could Talk Sharp

    Golden Globes: Amy Adams, Regina King Lead List of Crossover Nominees

    In the age of peak TV, actors, writers, directors and producers, and subsequently their managers and agents, are open for business in any medium, and that new attitude shows in awards nominations, especially when it comes to the Golden Globe acting fields. Amy Adams and Regina King scored nominations in both film and TV categories [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content