As the titular character of Agnieszka, Karolina Gorczyca throws a perpetual shroud over herself. Her posture alone shows a dogged determination to not get noticed, which counts for little since the people she meets in Germany, where she has gone to after serving five years’ jailtime in Poland, can’t help but notice her. They’re constantly compelled to speak with her, or at least be in her presence until she satisfies some kind of yearning within them. Given the handheld camerawork and underplayed performances, you might expect a realistic and intimate character drama to be played out through her and these subservient figures. Maybe she grants a coming-of-age to the naïve teenager (Lorenzo Nedis Walcher) she goes steady with, who drives rings around her on a scooter like a lovesick dog? Perhaps her own desires are pulled out and toyed with, apropos of the sadomasocistic line of work she is hired into by a lonely maiden (Hildegard Schmahl)? Unfortunately, writer-director Tomasz Emil Rudzik opts for a surreal approach to this story that both falls short of the promise of those narrative threads and runs totally counter to his aesthetic, resulting in a slog through persistently hollow material.
Rudzik’s indecision begins early when his lead finds a mysterious man from her past in a car garage, douses him in petrol and sets him on fire, only for it to be never mentioned again as she absconds to a new life as a professional dominatrix.1 Nowhere in her lessons on the ways of crotch-kicking from a younger colleague (Elisa Schlott) nor her car trips across the city from a dowdy chauffeur (Jörg Witte) is this savage desire for revenge addressed, though its plot summary on IMDB leads with it. The brunt of the runtime is spent on the weak aforementioned romance, which manages zero believability despite occasionally interesting staging from editor Alina Teodorescu. After many minutes spent gracelessly hopping through these dynamics, Rudzik finally brings forth her wrathful side when a client (Thomas Darchinger) steps far over the line of his contractual agreement. The resulting sequence hints thematically at some manner of domestic or familial corruption, but by this point the text is too strained in different directions to deliver anything coherent or effective, and the aesthetic-content schism goes from amusing to maddening.
There’s a point in the early scenes outside jail where Agnieszka turns around and asks to be let back in, which is not only a very unique moment in a very rudimentary montage but one which suggests that she has a weakness for the imprisoning or punishing aspects of that environment. Rather than expound on what makes Agnieszka tick though, Rudzik makes her a docile figure while he fixates on everyone else’s weaknesses. To his credit, this sometimes creates intriguing moments, such as when Gorczyca and Schmahl dance figuratively and literally in tight frames made by cinematographer Sorin Dragoi. While shallow, they say more than the confusing (or confusingly translated) dialogue between them, and much more than the stiff interaction between Gorczyca and Walcher. The hints of romantic, erotic and sometimes Freudian tones that lie here are where the film veers towards an engaging situation for Agnieszka to deal with, but for the most part she and Gorczyca are made to feed on scraps in a hollow story that Rudzik is bafflingly determined to underplay.
You could, as with most frustrating films, entertain the idea that all of this is being done on purpose as a surreal or ironic statement. Surreality within reality and vice versa does seem to be within Rudzik’s wheelhouse, if the trailer for his previous feature is anything to go by. Nonetheless, whatever artful abstraction he has written into Agnieszka has been transmuted into a staid piece that just doesn’t line up with that possibility. Contrarily, what vague sense of realism sits like oil on the narrative water, and so our empathy for the woman at its centre floats out of reach.