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‘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.

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