By Alex Ramon.
The film by and large succeeds in putting “women’s different experience” centre screen.”
“A passionate lover will fulfil your deepest desires. This week the world is yours. You will be the queen of your life. Don’t be afraid to be daring…” The recitation of a florid horoscope, played off of the deadpan countenance of Mary (Grażyna Misiorowska), a 50-year-old shopworker, sets the tone for Daria Woszek’s enjoyably stylised comedy-drama Marygoround (Maryjki), which recently picked up three top prizes (Best Film, Director, and Actress) at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival. Reading out said horoscope is our protagonist’s younger colleague (Magdalena Koleśnik), whose pink hair makes her seem very much at home in a retro, candy-coloured store that looks a little like it’s emerged from a Pedro Almodóvar wet dream.
Our older heroine, on the other hand, initially looks out of her element in most locales. Partial to a smoke, an ardent collector of religious figurines (the “Maryjki” of the film’s Polish title), and a reader of Harlequin-esque literature (whose purple prose she sometimes intones in voiceover), Mary’s domestic and work routines, as well as her increasingly outré hallucinations and fantasies, form the focus of Woszek’s distinctive debut feature. Irritating health issues make the protagonist consult a gynaecologist who, after a briskly humiliating encounter (“There’s nothing interesting going on down there”) leading to the revelation of still-preserved virginity, diagnoses menopause and prescribes HRT patches. Incorrectly employed, these prove to have some unexpected effects, as a reinvigorated, sensually awakened Mary gains in confidence and starts opening herself up to new experiences, much to the surprise of her libertine niece, Helena (Helena Sujecka).
The last film I saw that made a female character’s experience of menopause a significant part of the plot was Blandine Lenoir’s witless Nancy Meyers knock-off Aurore (I Got Life) (2017). But Marygoround is an altogether funnier, odder, sharper, more idiosyncratic and compelling creation. The film’s punning English title, which nicely evokes the protagonist’s daily routine and its transcendence through dizzying acts of fantasy, is matched by its imagery and sound design, which work to keep the viewer off balance. Combining classical flourishes with delicately pulsing synths, Marcin Macuk’s superb score complements the reds and blues of Michał Pukowiec’s cinematography and the sharp editing by Agnieszka Glinska and Agata Marciniak, while Alicja Kazimierczak’s production design dotes on detail, especially in its renderings of the store, Mary’s apartment, and the saturated fantasy scenes.
With its incremental focus on the by turns terse and tender dynamic between a contrasting aunt and niece duo, Marygoround also gestures slyly towards one of the most celebrated Polish films of recent years, Paweł Pawlikowski’s retro miniature Ida (2013), especially when Helena tells Mary: “I’m going to end up in hell and you’re going to be a saint” – recalling Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza)’s remark to Agata Trzebuchowska’s Ida: “I’m a slut and you’re a little saint.” Where Woszek scores is in gradually and gleefully destabilising this dynamic (and the whole whore/Madonna binary underpinning it) so that both characters have something to learn from and exchange with the other, suggesting an integration of sexual and spiritual selves.
In terms of other Polish influences on the picture, Piotr Szulkin’s unloved female sexuality exploration Femina (1991) might be an intertext, while there’s more than a hint of Borys Lankosz’s Rewers (2009) to a dinner scene confrontation between the two female protagonists and an outsider male: in this case, a younger shop employee (excellent Sylwester Piechura) who becomes Mary’s unexpected date – a scene which leads to a liberating (if predictable) riot of figurine smashing.
Some sketchy characterisations and relationship dynamics suggest either gaps in Woszek, Aleksandra Świerk, and Piechura’s screenplay or over-cutting (the picture comes in at a very modest, lean 75 minutes). Still, even when the film falters, Misiorowska, a veteran theatre actress here making her belated debut as a cinema lead, holds it together. At times suggesting an escapee from an Aki Kaurismäki film, she keeps us guessing as to the extent of the character’s crack up or awakening – whether she’s being followed in a series of elegant tracking shots as she wanders the city streets or slinking through a hilariously sultry pop video interlude.
Dedicated to the director’s mother, the film by and large succeeds in putting “women’s different experience” centre screen. Like her heroine, as it turns out, Woszek isn’t “afraid to be daring,” and Marygoround places her in the company of the fearless female filmmakers – Szumowska, Szelc and Smoczyńska, among them – who are making some of the most surprising and subversive work that Polish cinema currently has to offer.
Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and has written and presented papers on Guy Maddin, Sarah Polley, Rawi Hage, Mordecai Richler, and Iris Murdoch. He has interviewed various directors, writers and actors including Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Chyra, and Samuel Adamson. His current projects include a study of novel-to-film adaptations. He writes for PopMatters and British Theatre Guide and blogs at Boycotting Trends