After two years away, a woman emerges from the wilderness with a drastically different identity, with tics and recollections of her former self flashing only intermittently through, like glitches in an otherwise complete new entity. That’s the story of the protagonist in “Fugue,” an anxious, storm-brewing melodrama from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, though it could as easily describe its gifted director’s reemergence: Gravely composed and played in an aptly atonal minor key, it’s the last follow-up we could have expected to “The Lure,” the deranged adult mermaid musical with which Smoczyńska conspicuously debuted in 2016. Some will be disappointed by the lack of fishy flash and fancy in “Fugue,” but its controlled expansiveness of tone, psychology and camera mark its helmer — invaluably aided by writer-star Gabriela Muskała — as a stylist of considerable, unpredictable finesse. She could go anywhere from here; festival selectors, distributors and audiences would be wise to follow.
A competition berth in Cannes Critics’ Week — generally the domain of new or unheralded filmmakers — is a somewhat surprising festival placement for a director whose debut found such a swift and devoted following that it’s already been inducted into the Criterion Collection. “Fugue” could, and hopefully will, withstand a larger spotlight even if it’s unlikely to inspire quite as much international fascination as “The Lure.” If Smoczyńska’s latest is a more sober affair, however, it’s also an accessible one: The premise of an amnesiac confronted with their own unfamiliar identity has been the stuff of tearjerkers and psychodramas just about as long as cinema has been around, though “Fugue” freshens it with compellingly disarranged domestic politics and a firm feminist viewpoint.
Credit for this should be shared equally between Smoczyńska and the remarkable Muskała, who contributes both a compact, densely characterized feature screenplay (all the more impressive for being her first) and a poised, tensely electrified lead performance as “Alicja,” an anonymous woman introduced emerging literally from darkness onto the filthy tracks of an urban train station.
Staggering onto the platform, stained and scratched and wild-eyed, she has no recollection of who she is, where she has immediately come from or where she’s supposed to be; when we snap forward two years, with a wealth of medical and psychological scrutiny having taken place in the interim, the renamed Alicja and the authorities are none the wiser as to what prompted or preceded her fugue state. A last-ditch plea on a televised talk show, however, gets an anguished response from a man claiming to be her father: turns out Alicja is really Kinga, a devoted wife and mother who been an inexplicable, unsolved missing-person case all this time.
Smoczyńska and Muskała tell their story in sharp, clean strokes, skipping past procedural complications and cutting directly to the heart of emotional ones. Alicja, who refuses to adopt her “real” name, experiences far from a happy homecoming, bristling at the thought of extended contact with a family she doesn’t recognize and to whom she doesn’t relate. Whatever unidentified ordeal she underwent has cost her not just her memory but her former personality: The apparently contented, servile homemaker she used to be has been made spikily independent and skeptical by trauma. Her husband Krzysztof (Łukasz Simlat) doesn’t know how to approach her, while her preschooler son Daniel (Iwo Rajski, a heartbreaking natural) swings erratically between curiosity, confusion and active hostility toward this nominally maternal intruder. It’s only through complex games of mutual deregulation that this ruptured family begins tentatively to bond, though for Alicja, a nagging question remains: Was Kinga really that happy?
“Fugue” could take this mystery in a more fevered or hysterical direction, though the filmmakers rightly recognize enough high-stakes tension in Alicja’s internal battle with an everyday life that feels entirely alien to her. Ordinary set pieces, like a family day at the beach ruined by stormy weather, are made convincingly overwhelming as Jacub Kijowski’s agile camerawork — working in deep, soaked watercolor blues and browns — and Niklas Skarp and Marcin Lenarczyk’s inventively selective sound design sporadically lock us into the protagonist’s agitated, exhausted headspace.
It’s at intervals like these that Smoczynska lets her more expressionistic directorial impulses out to play. Her sophomore film may be less overtly eccentric than her debut, but there are well-placed flourishes here of “The Lure’s” dark ingenuity: a witty animated signature at the outset, a spooky dinner-dance scene that may as well be playing out underwater, and in one rapturous moment of inspired visual poetry, a medical CAT scan that reveals radiant wildflowers blooming amid internal organs. These are difficult indulgences to pull off, but “Fugue” rarely feels unmoored or undisciplined in a way that’s at all separate from Alicja’s own identity crisis: As a character study of a woman desperately trying to resolve one identity with another, its deft, artful breaks in form are as considered as everything else.