East and West Europe clash in Bettina Oberli’s sly satire My Wonderful Wanda which was included in Glasgow Film Festival’s stellar line-up, and given special mention in the Nora Ephron Award category at Tribeca.
Wanda (Agnieszka Grochowska) arrives by coach from Poland – and does so at the start of each chapter of the film’s structure – clutching as much of her life as she can pack into two pieces of luggage. The most important parts, her two sons, are left behind and cared for by her parents while she earns a wage. She is employed by the Wegmeister-Gloor family (yes, really – translate it) and cares for patriarch Josef (André Jung) who has been left debilitated by a stroke.
His wife Elsa (Marthe Heller) and adult children Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr) and Gregi (Jacob Matschenz) are unwilling to lift him, place him on the commode chair or shower him, their lives either too full or too empty to truly care one way or another. Wanda does it all. Even when Manuela goes back to Portugal, Wanda is asked to take on extra cooking and cleaning. The Wegmeister-Gloors are far from poor with their stunning lakeside home that it makes the fact that she must barter for her wages all the more galling to watch.
Josef starts paying Wanda for sex as another way to supplement her income. Their business transaction satisfying both as his needs are met and she is able to send more money home. Almost predictably, she is then accused of stealing the money and her passport threatened with confiscation. Make no mistake, these are not likeable people but you will have to wait until the final few moments as to whether any of them are redeemable.
When Wanda falls pregnant by the ‘infertile’ Josef that’s when the fun really starts as panic and horror sets in and the realisation of what this may cost the family, both in monetary terms and to their prided reputation. There’s an element of schadenfreude as one watches white privilege implode in a drunken haze and Nancy Sinatra, a protection of assets and a taxidermy funeral (an art installation in the snow), while Wanda remains the taciturn and rational one. Choices are made but not by her – the poor tend not to have those – and Gregi, the youngest Wegmeister-Gloor, finally takes his creepy bird noises with him and flies the nest.
Oberli’s film is nuanced and empathetically shot – the family as microcosm – with its greens and blues symbolising all that is in nature, the façade beneath the picturesque, as well as the cash and the bloodline. Its tone is perfectly measured as it deftly comments on class, the immigrant experience, motherhood, family dynamics (including the multitude of human neuroses that comes with it) and legacy, however, does it with a sense of self-awareness and humour. The inclusion of the cow is genius – both as cast member and visual metaphor – and provides ever more light relief.
My Wonderful Wanda’s strength lies in its direction, screenplay, biting satire, and ensemble cast, with standout performances from Grochowska and Heller. Perhaps, we are all just prisoners of circumstance whether rich or poor.