Runtime: 111 minutes
Director: Bettina Oberli
Writers: Bettina Oberli & Cooky Ziesche
Stars: Agnieszka Grochowska, Andre Jung, Martha Keller, Birgit Minichmayr, Jacob Matschenz
By Calum Cooper
Bettina Oberli’s “My Wonderful Wanda” (2021) had the potential to be something really powerful and scathing. Its setup is interesting, and its actors all work well off of each other. But its script feels undercooked, leaving us with a film that bodes promise but lacks sufficient payoff.
Wanda (Agnieszka Grochowska) is a Polish care woman hired to look after Josef (Andre Jung), the 70-year-old patriarch of the wealthy Wegmister-Gloor family. She stays in their family home during her employment, forming bonds with the son Gregor (Jacob Matschenz), who has a crush on her, and the matriarch Elsa (Martha Keller), and a strenuous dislike of daughter Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr). But she is always aware that she is not one of them. She comes from a background of poverty and sends money back to support her parents and two young sons.
Her pay from the family is not enough, and so she has sex with Josef in exchange for his money. The first reveal of this is an impressive scene done with almost no dialogue – only expressions to show that this is a recurring thing. But this also leads to Wanda becoming pregnant. Thus what was once a mutual arrangement now becomes a vicious legal battle on what is going to happen with the child.
“There isn’t much agency to the characters or urgency to the dilemmas presented. The subtext is interesting, but it’s hard to fully appreciate beneath the repetitive arguments and half-baked scenarios”
One of the most immediate comparisons one can draw with “My Wonderful Wanda” is Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019), at least from a thematic perspective. The film is divided into three chapters, and the first in particular portrays elitism as well as the entitled, gatekeeping, and even xenophobic attitudes that are too often seen among upper class families, especially towards immigrants or the working class. The family is happy to tell Wanda she’s family, but is shunned and disregarded as being inferior by Sophie at every turn, as well as the rest of the family if something seems missing or off. And when the second chapter kicks in, with the development of Wanda’s pregnancy, their priority is not about what happens to the child, but what happens to their family image. One could even make a case for the film being about internalised misogyny given the relationships between Wanda, Sophie, and Elsa throughout the narrative. There’s some intriguing topics here, with some nice set design to serve as a backdrop.
The problem is that the film just doesn’t have enough gusto to it. It’s a good idea, but the script spends far too much time setting up the conflict in its first chapter (40 of the film’s 111 minutes), and then once it actually gets into the meat of the story it goes round in circles. The dialogue can be very visceral at times – showing an eye for confrontation on the parts of Oberli and co-writer Cooky Ziesche. But too much of the film is spent between archetypal characters, many different degrees of nasty or two-faced, discussing their points of view. There are no creative twists or even much convincing character development, despite the otherwise solid performances from the ensemble cast. For much of the second chapter, Wanda feels almost like a secondary character despite the title.
Because of this, there doesn’t isn’t much agency to the characters or urgency to the dilemmas presented. The subtext is interesting, but it’s hard to fully appreciate beneath the repetitive arguments and half-baked scenarios that occur back-to-back. A lot seems to be going on – or at least talked about – but it feels as though nothing is really happening. It’s a pity given the nuggets of impressive mise-en-scene or dialogue. But even as I type this I find myself forgetting what happened. The promise of a premise can only go so far sadly.