“My Wonderful Wanda” – In so many ways [MOVIE REVIEW]
“My Wonderful Wanda,” written by Bettina Oberli and Cooky Ziesche and directed by Oberli, is an absurdist comedy about class, family, and respect.
We meet the Wanda of the title as she alights from a bus that has brought her from Poland to a picturesque village in the Swiss mountains. Wanda has been working three month contracts for the wealthy Swiss Wegmeister-Gloor family. Josef, the patriarch, is recovering from a stroke and Wanda has been his caretaker for some time now. At the end of each three month contract, she returns to Poland to her parents’ home to care for her own two children, returning to Switzerland when legally possible. Wanda’s work for Josef is their only source of income and though meager by Swiss standards, it is enough for her Polish family to live.
Josef is devoted to Wanda, something his wife Elsa encourages. Elsa is as patronizing as her station in life allows but gives Wanda a modicum of respect. Nevertheless, mindful of Wanda’s circumstances, Elsa doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of her needs and pay her less than she should. Gregi, Elsa and Josef’s son, is a dreamer, the unwilling successor to his father’s business. He worships his taxidermy collection and Wanda, not necessarily in that order. The fourth family member is daughter Sophie, an officious snob who treats Wanda with a humiliating disdain. With her own marriage in trouble, the bossy, petulant Sophie is resentful of Wanda’s vaunted position in her father’s eyes.
Wanda is cool, calm, collected and not easily disturbed. She is well aware of her position as the eye in this storm as she observes the machinations around her. She is there to earn money to take home and has a secret additional source unknown to everyone but Josef. Bedridden but not paralyzed, Josef has been calling Wanda to his bedside in the middle of the night for well-paid extra-curricular activities. Wanda has been routinely having sex with Josef for a fat fee.
Everything goes careening out of control when Sophie sees Wanda counting money she shouldn’t have. She accuses her of theft, destroying any vestige of privacy and dignity that Wanda had previously maintained. Josef, irate, acknowledges the source of money came from him as a gift to buy a cow for Wanda’s family. A cow? They aren’t farmers but the ruse worked and Elsa and Sophie back down. Wanda, however, has had enough and ends her contract and ties with the family and returns home, much to the dismay of Josef and Gregi, both of whom still harbor feelings for her.
We next see Wanda as she deboards yet another Polish bus at the Swiss station. Greeted by Elsa, her happiness to see Wanda again is tempered by Wanda’s announcement. She is pregnant. Elsa, believing that her son Gregi is the father is nonplussed. That is until Wanda reveals that the father is Josef, unleashing a storm of recriminations and resentment. Josef is over the moon; Elsa is devastated; Sophie is beyond angry; and Gregi, disappointed. In keeping with her self-awareness and lack of vanity, Wanda admits that she prostituted herself with Josef for the extra funds. In her eyes it was merely a business arrangement.
As Wanda stands apart, watching the family misery unfold., old wounds, financial considerations, class resentments, joy, and misery rear their heads. What will it take for this to all go away. And as if everything up to now hadn’t been complicated enough, that snowball has only just begun to trigger the eventual avalanche.
Oberli has woven this intricate story into absurdity. What could, just as easily, have become a tragedy of epic proportions is, instead, a comedy of manners. All it takes to unravel this tightly woven blanket of upper middle class civility is for any one of the characters to pull on a single loose thread. Ziesche and Oberli’s script sets one event against another, almost like a classic farce but with more serious implications. Oberli’s direction is crisp and keeps all the soldiers marching in step until a minor stumble yields a major pileup.
The cast is peerless. Oberli hired well-established theater actors who know exactly how to play to one another’s strengths. Josef, performed by André Jung, is just the right amount of despicable counter balanced by desire and longing. He, out of the whole family, actually sees who Wanda is, despite his callous use of her. Birgit Minichmayr as Sophie is believably smug, resentful, and vulnerable at the same time. Even as she shows warmth, it is tempered with narcissism.
There is the incomparable Marthe Keller as Elsa, most recently seen in “My Little Sister.” Here, however, she exudes warmth, tempered with perplexity, sadness, and a residual touch of classism. Any film with Marthe Keller is one that deserves attention and she doesn’t disappoint.
The highlight, though, is Agnieszka Grochowska as Wanda. Essentially unknown outside of Poland, with the exception of a couple of minor American films, she is a shining star. Beautiful, charismatic, straightforward, who wouldn’t fall in love with her? Grochowska plays against and with each of the other actor’s strengths, never overshadowing but somehow always becoming the central focus, and justifiably so. One can only hope that she appears in more international films in the future because her talent is so evident.
In German and Polish with English subtitles.
Opening Friday April 23 at the Laemmle Theatres, both in person and virtually.
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