A LONELY WOMAN Is Austere But Charged With Life And Meaning
A Lonely Woman depicts the life of Irena Misiak, whose bleak life is turned upside down by a new love affair, but hopes for a new beginning still seems out of reach.
This film was banned for years by the Polish government due to its criticism of Poland’s societal hierarchies.
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Maria Chwalibog, Pawel Witczak, Boguslaw Linda
Language: Polish with English subtitles
Runtime: 95 minutes
It really is no wonder that this film was banned in Poland for years – Agnieszka Holland is not shy about bringing to light the predicament of Soviet-run Poland. In fact, she’s a well-known contributor to what Janusz Kijowski calls the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ – a category of Polish films that dive into the everyday reality of a communist state, the psychological impact on the people, and their anxieties.
When I say dive, I mean really plunge the viewer into this – in this austere and heart-breaking film, we witness the adversity through the life of a single mother struggling to make ends meet as a postwoman.
The social commentary here cannot be overlooked, what with the main characters being a child, a cripple and a lonely woman – their voices seem to speak for those unheard or overlooked in a hierarchical society. We see a child (Pawel Witczak) whose playfulness gets him into more serious trouble than he could intend for and who doesn’t have the authority to oppose when his childhood is packed up and uprooted from home. We see the crippled Jacek (Boguslaw Linda) shying away from the neighbours’ taunting and determined to leave Poland entirely.
Taking centre-stage, we see single-mum Irena (Maria Chwalibog) constantly raising her voice to desperate pleas for help that she does not get – her friends merely advise her to reach out to the Party and when she does, she is literally man-handled and ordered to convey her concerns through the post.
Much of the anxiety we get in this film is carried by Chwalibog’s acting. With a rather sturdy build, strong features and cropped hair that attributed a kind of toughness to her, she looked the part of a woman who has gone through a lot. Combined with a quiet determination as she chores through her day and her stubbornness as she fights against the security screaming out – “I will not go on living like a dog!” – is what makes her seem stronger than the title suggests. Then we get scenes that are more emotionally charged, where her anxieties and her helplessness begin to erode away the calm surface and the title makes sense – if she only got the help or perhaps the companion that she needed.
And, she does. The lonely woman finds a companion in Jacek, a miner left crippled after an accident at work. As we see them opening up to each other, we begin to see not two individuals coming together in a bond of shared love but two lonely individuals leaning on each other for hope that is absent in their world.
Her relationship with Jacek becomes symbolic of a kind of hope for this lonely woman who watches him become a father figure for her child. It gave me hope too, for a happy ending which I knew that a ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ rarely gave in to.
Optimists and romantics can revel in the passion of their intimate moments, particularly when Jacek awaits for Irena in a field – or in the middle of nowhere, really – and fesses his love for her with a flower in hand. There’s nothing grandeur about it, the cold tones, the dimness do not give off a romantic vibe and but the open space we get here, combined with their uncontained expressions through gestures of love and sincerity, is a breath of fresh air from the rest of the film.
Viewing this film made me sympathise deeply with Irena. Perhaps it is the cinematography here that entrapped me in the position of an empath – the lighting is dim and warm, every scene is viewed up-close and personal, making it easy to be completely immersed in it. There’s barely anything striking about the artistic direction – it’s all bleak, with a colour palette of greys, browns and oranges. It entraps us in Irena’s bleak and lonely world.
Don’t worry, it’s depressing but it isn’t dreary. From all the troubles and struggles faced by each character, from the highs and lows of a mother-and-son relationship and a romantic relationship, there are still bits of love and compassion scattered amongst the depressing political state of Poland.
The pacing was fairly quick, and we get ups and downs along the way, not in a conventional building-up-to-a-single-event kind of way. The emotions and the relationships explored is this film – with exhilarating highs and extreme lows – make it one of the most honest depictions of life and adversity. The ending to the story is powerful, and surprisingly surreal – it left me speechless and heartbroken. Not to be dramatic but my heart ached for the child, the cripple and the lonely woman – they deserved so much more.
This film more than just shows the everyday anxiety of living in a politically unstable state, it puts viewers on a rollercoaster ride of emotions that are universal even if the political climate is not. It manoeuvres human emotions and relationships with a masterful control of a powerful political voice.
A Lonely Woman is one from a line-up of female-directed films revolving around the themes of homelessness, solitude and adversity screened at the N.O.W (Not Ordinary Work) Film Weekend.
N.O.W. is a three-week public project. From 2019-2021, Noorlinah Mohamed, established actress and arts educator, is appointed N.O.W.’s Artistic Director. For the next three years, she focuses on celebrating women creators, thinkers, and change-makers, and their approach to making a difference. Led by women and supported by women production, technical and administrative teams, N.O.W. makes visible the multifaceted and capable women, their voices and their not ordinary work. From performance to film, music to visual arts, workshops to talks, N.O.W. spotlights her process, her thoughts and her creation. Experimental, deliciously weird, and yes, fun, these works explore the conversations women creators and thinkers have with the world – and each other.