The first real clue comes when Andrzej is called up for national service and, standing in front of the army medics in his underwear, refuses to take his socks off. His toenails were painted blue, he tells his mates cheerfully a couple of years later, as if it were a joke. But it isn’t a joke; it is the most serious thing in his life. He is waving a flag at the time; they are in the bloom of the Solidarity movement and the promise of a new world, when it feels like anything goes.
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But it isn’t quite like that, either. Poland will soon find its conservative heart. An occasional magazine article about newly recognized gender dysphoria may pop up. The internet is full of sex sites offering new combinations, even if that doesn’t quite chime with what Andrzej, who has a beloved wife and children, feels churning inside. He can wear his wife’s camisole under a baggy shirt and feel his inherent gender next to the skin of his mismatched body, even if nobody else can see it. But Poland in 2004 – or 2014, 2019 or any of the other marker years in its volatile history – is no place to be transgender. The law is not on Andrzej’s side. At first, it seems that nobody is on his side.
Woman Of (Kobieta Z…) co-writers and directors Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert were last at the Venice Film Festival with Never Gonna Snow Again, a wry exploration of Poland’s class divide centered on a Rasputin-like masseur from Ukraine who inveigles his way into the lives of the rich and helpless in a gated estate. Woman Of has none of that film’s satirical brio or teasing suggestions of the supernatural at work; if anything, it hearkens back to Szumowska’s long experience making documentaries.
Understandably: this is not a subject that can be abandoned to the imagination. Key scenes from Andrzej’s blossoming life as Aniela – an unmasking in a communal shower, agonizing reckonings with family, a first sexual encounter with another transgender woman – have the strong whiff of a researcher’s casebook. Datelines ensure we know exactly where we are. It is a human story, but with implied footnotes.
It is also a story that plays awkwardly on the screen. Perhaps this is inevitable, given that actors are portraying people who are themselves passing and pretending, dressing up and dressing down; Andrzej/Aniela is a millefeuille of performative layers. Mateusz Wieclawek, a vital actor who brings an inalienable male glamour with him, plays young Andrzej.
Early scenes include the draft difficulty; his first meeting with Isabela, the young nurse who will become his wife; a conventional montage of a suitably sunlit courtship; a wedding and first baby. All this has the straightforward narrative quality of a newsreel. As a rigger, young Andrzej is noted approvingly by his boss as able to climb anything in seconds. He can also balance confidently on the railway bridge that crosses a chasm near their town, standing outside the protective rail as if about to jump to his death. Perhaps he thinks about it.
Middle-aged Andrzej is played by cisgender actress Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik, who is small-boned, fine-featured and feminine in every gesture. His wife, now played by the great Joanna Kulig, is crankily aware that their sex life has tailed off to nothing, but is supposed to have no idea that the person who shares her bed has a secret life in high heels. Aniela duly moves out of their home and, having been rejected by every hotel in town, finds refuge with an order of nuns who get some of the girlish glee precluded by their vows by helping their new boarder dye her hair. Presumably this is one of the casebook stories, but it beggars belief that none of the nuns suspected someone they hadn’t imagined. Hajewska-Kryzysztofik is a deeply sympathetic presence, but the wrong physical fit for some of the vignettes gathered here.
The film has its own sympathies. Woman Of is not exactly a campaigning film, but it is a work of advocacy. Aniela’s long trail through interviews with uncomprehending or intrusive doctors, court appearances contrived to ensure she will never be able to establish her female identity and, most poignantly, with the parents whose hearts she has supposedly broken, is laid before us as a clear demonstration of social injustice.
But there are also unexpected and moving breaks in the clouds of hostility – from a work colleague who gives Aniela his wife’s unwanted cosmetics, from her old mates who still ask her to come and have a beer and, most beautifully, in a second montage echoing that depicting young Andrzej and Isabela’s youthful courtship in which they are reunited as two women and seem to fall in love all over again. “I just want an ordinary life,” Aniela tells Isabela in the first flush of crisis. In the end, through her own determination, she achieves something much better than that.
Title: Woman Of
Festival: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Directors/screenwriters: Małgorzata Szumowska, Michał Englert
Cast: Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik, Joanna Kulig, Bogumila Bajor, Mateusz Wieclawek
Running time: 2 hr 12 min
Sales agent: Memento International
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