Review: Agnieszka Smoczynska’s ‘Fugue’ Emerges From the Darkness

Alicja (Gabriela Muskala) staggers out of a subway tunnel, ignored like so many other marginalized people, and climbs onto the platform. People avert their gaze until she squats down and begins to urinate in front of everyone. 

Two years later, Alicja is in the care of a state psychiatrist, having attacked a police officer. She is promised leniency if she can appear on television. Confused and pressed by the interviewer on the talk show, she has no recollection of her life before. Alicja’s father calls into the show, wracked with the complicated feelings of loss and a reintroduction of his daughter, who he claims is named Kinga Slowika, and who has both a husband and a young son. What follows in Agnieszka Smoczynska’s Fugue is a slowly unspooling mystery of who she really is, and what it means to return to a life that, perhaps, drove her into the darkness.

Fugue is less concerned with the circumstances behind Alicja’s descent into her fugue state than her reintegration into her family and society afterwards. She slowly pieces together the circumstances of her past, slowly assembling half-remembered clues and home videos to determine why and how Kinga became Alicja. But even when these threads start to come together, it seems like they’re secondary to who Alicja/Kinga is now. The story, penned by Muskala herself, is a carefully-crafted treatise on what it means to be one’s authentic self, and calls into question the assumption that maternity is, or should be, an aspiration for every woman just because she can.

Fans, and I count myself as an enthusiastic one, of Smocynska’s 2015 horror-tinged mermaid musical The Lure will not find too many hints of that film’s brash, elaborately-choreographed numbers here, and in fact Fugue plays like the precise opposite. It’s dark, meditative, and understated in a way that The Lure never is, and shows Smocynska’s depth as a filmmaker. There are, however, beautiful interludes – an animated scene that juxtaposes flowers with Alicja’s MRI scan, or bugs emerging from her mouth – that put Smocynska’s unique (and, at times, uniquely horrifying) vision on display. The DNA that Fugue shares with The Lure is in its relationship between the women at the centre of Smocynska’s stories and their families, whether it’s their long-lost husband and child, or their twin mermaid sister. 

Fugue is another in Agneieska Smocynska’s canon of outstanding horrors about women unraveling the mysteries of their own identity. It also cements her place as one of the most important Polish directors working today, as well as one of the best in horror in general. As I say when I evangelize The Lure to anyone that will listen, I can’t wait for her next film. 

Agneieska Smocynska’s Fugue premieres in New York and selected markets on March 31, 2023.

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