There are so many things that don’t add up in Olga Chajdas’ debut feature “Nina” that the film’s bold perspective gets subsumed under a deluge of unanswered questions and flawed logic. It doesn’t help that the central couple looking for a surrogate womb don’t seem especially keen on being parents, nor is it believable that the woman they set their eyes on is their last chance, or so they keep saying. In the end, the surrogacy thing is really a side element to the driving force of the narrative, which is the wife’s awakening to her attraction to the other woman, a cool-headed, independent lesbian who shouldn’t give this pair the time of day but somehow gets swept up by heady passions. “Nina” is notable for its energetic celebration of lesbian sexuality, yet notwithstanding the positive reinforcement of Rotterdam’s Big Screen Award, play will be limited to the LGBTQ circuit, though even there, a significant level of narrative dissatisfaction is inevitable.
The bond between Nina (Julia Kijowska) and Wojtek (Andrzej Konopka) seems less than an ideal partnership. Maybe that’s because she’s a brittle high school French teacher from an upper-middle-class intellectual family and he’s a mechanic clearly out of his element in their elegant apartment. Airport security guard Magda (Eliza Rycembel) is in a relationship with chic stewardess Ada (Táňa Pauhofová), but she plays the field in the frequent times her lover is away. Then one day Nina absentmindedly backs into Magda’s car, conveniently near Wojtek’s shop. Attracted to Magda’s natural beauty and palpable inner strength, Wojtek suggests to Nina that they seduce the young woman into being the surrogate they need to conceive the child that’s meant to hold them together.
Chajdas composes many of these early scenes with a play on focal points, getting cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk to shoot through panes of glass where edges and background remain fuzzy and lighting levels are frustratingly low. Maybe that’s because Nina’s only been seeing half the picture, or her view’s been distorted. Either way, it conveys a sense of destabilization that also works against audience connection with the characters, notwithstanding the camera’s close proximity.
Following a pot-filled evening Magda bails on the couple, but Nina decides she’s the ideal candidate and sets out to win her over while still hiding the reason for her interest (though surely Magda should have some idea when Nina enquires about any genetic diseases and asks for childhood photos). To really get Magda in the mood, Nina takes her to an art installation, Natalia Bażowska’s “Birth Place,” which is meant to recreate the experience of being in a womb. The two women get comfortable, snuggle into the pulsing red space, and Nina finally says why she’s interested. Shock. Then Magda tells her she’s lesbian. Further surprise. Really?
Suddenly Nina questions herself: What is this attraction she’s feeling? Magda takes her to a lesbian club where the sexually charged atmosphere turns intoxicating, though Wojtek, who seems to be looking in through a window, appears out of sorts as he watches his wife get in touch with her repressed desires. Or could it be bad editing that gives the unlikely impression of a Polish LGBTQ club with windows looking out on the street?
Editing clearly is a problem for “Nina,” which runs more than two hours and could easily be trimmed of a number of scenes, including those with Nina teaching her students about Godard’s “Contempt.” Chajdas’ concept is fine, and sequences in the club, together with scenes of Magda and her friends, have a much-needed playful energy. But when Nina’s surprised sister asks if she’s bisexual, and the answer is “I’m Magda-sexual,” who can repress a snigger?
The fault certainly doesn’t lie with either actress: Kijowska (“United States of Love”) is appropriately flinty, and Rycembel is an engaging, natural presence, yet they’re in need of a much tighter script. It would also help if someone turned on a light occasionally — Chajdas has a fondness for darkened spaces, particularly ones awash in red light (a further womb reference?). The peculiarly haphazard use of minimalist music also seems ill thought out.