There will come a time, perhaps not even too far from now, when films like “Woman Of…” may feel, if not old hat, at least familiar, part of a genre unto itself: not a coming-of-age story but a coming-of-self one, tracing the particular life stages of identifying oneself as transgender, accepting oneself as such, and finally living that truth out loud. Spanning decades in its closeup portrait of a Polish trans woman traveling that trajectory in a social climate hostile to her very existence, Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert’s heart-on-sleeve film isn’t aiming to be revolutionary — there’s an old-fashioned melodramatic heft to its episodic construction, setting its heroine’s tale in a pointedly mainstream context. But it still represents a bold gesture of cinematic allyship, drawing attention as it does to Poland’s dire record on LGBT rights.
Those merits will serve this Venice competition premiere well on the festival circuit, where it will be particularly embraced by queer-specializing programmers and distributors. Dramatically, “Woman Of…” is uneven, plodding through certain stretches of its interior-epic narrative, and offering relatively few surprises on its journey through the chrysalis of self-realization. But it holds its audience with the sheer, plangent emotional force of its storytelling, and via an enormously sympathetic lead performance by Małgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik, a cisgender actress who nonetheless navigates the long-term arc of transition with sensitivity and attentive physical detail.
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When Aniela — then still presenting as male, under her birth name Andrzej — first hesitantly admits to her doctor that she feels “a pull to the other side,” she’s unhelpfully told that testosterone injections and sex with a hot female escort will sort her out: It’s the mid-1980s in small-town Poland, and trans identity is understood by the establishment only a particular type of homosexuality, itself scarcely tolerated. Aniela has known since childhood that she’s not one of the boys: An impressionistic prologue, rapturously shot by director-DP Englert, shows her as a lank-haired pre-teen in boy’s clothes and a girl’s communion veil, chased by taunting, laughing cis girls through a church-ruled village. Years later, as a teenager (then played by Mateusz Wieclawek), she’s ruled unfit for military service by dint of her painted toenails. Gender nonconformity, even in this punishing society, has its advantages.
Living as a man, a stifled Aniela does what’s expected of her up to middle age: Staying in her hometown, she takes a drab desk job while continuing to live with her conservative parents, marries straitlaced nurse Iza (played first by Bogumila Bajor, then “Cold War” star Joanna Kulig), and has two children. She’s a devoted, gentle-natured parent — her jockish brother Marek (Jacek Braciak) crudely observes that she’s more maternal than paternal in nature — and sincerely loves Iza, but the mental strain of suppressing her femininity becomes more than she can bear. Secret nighttime excursions in women’s clothes provide some release, but not enough: Years pass before she can admit to anyone that she was born in the wrong body. Iza’s reaction, upon learning the truth, careers wildly between selfish outrage and conciliatory attempts at understanding; Aniela’s parents respond with icier stonewalling.
Aided by Anna Englert’s outstanding period costuming — not to mention carefully graduated hair and makeup design by Waldemar Pokromski and Monika Kaleta — Hajewska-Krzysztofik is poignantly persuasive as a woman in various belated stages of becoming, as she finds and adjusts her voice, walk, posture and even facial mien from scene to scene. It’s this evolution before our eyes that keeps “Woman Of…” compelling, even as the script, built by the filmmakers from interviews with numerous trans subjects, gets a bit congested, lurching into courtroom and prison drama at one point, all while Aniela and Iza’s pleasingly complex marriage ebbs and flows across years.
The film’s title references “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron,” Andrzej Wajda’s landmark pair of workers’ rights studies, presenting Aniela as a defiant symbol of an entire marginalized minority, as Wajda’s heroes Mateusz and Maciej Birkut stood for an evolving labour movement. (The ellipsis in “Woman Of…” suggest both an ongoing struggle and a life still finding its matter.) It’s a lot to lay on one character, and one does occasionally wish for a finer, more individual exploration of Aniela’s inner life, her quirks of personality beyond her driving mission of identity, her everyday domestic routine as a spouse and parent. Her children, oddly, are faded out of proceedings as she comes into her own, when their perspective would be at least as valuable as that of Iza — played by Kulig in streaks of hot-and-cold fury, balancing out Hajewska-Krzysztofik’s more temperate work as a woman who has always found it safest not to shout.
Englert’s lensing, rich in powdery blues and soft yellow light, frames its heroine tenderly throughout, often painting the world as she would like to see it, away from harder realities. Jarosław Kamiński’s ornate editing sometimes disrupts the film’s broad linear timeline with flashes of memory that stitch Aniela’s past selves to her final, growing one. She’s a work in progress, but moving faster than the society around her, as Szumowska and Englert repeatedly note the legal, political and medical ways in which Poland fails its trans population. A closing title card openly shames the country for its stance: One hopes that flourish, at least, will grow dated, even as its story, and others like it, become standard.
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