This film might be described as an expressionist feminist family melodrama. MUBI actually suggests that it: “handles its erotic charge with grace and allure, blossoming into a beguiling portrait of queer awakening”. Unusually, the selected MUBI viewers weren’t unanimous in their praise, although some agreed wholeheartedly. Questions of gender identity are at the forefront of public debate and queerness is having its time in the spotlight, so I decided to persevere with Nina, even though I found the opening difficult to follow. I’m glad I did because I was eventually fully engaged for what is a long film and though not fully convinced I found much to enjoy, appreciate and ponder.
There are three central characters around whom a basic plot is developed. Nina and Wojtek are a married couple in their mid-thirties living in Warsaw. They haven’t managed to have children, despite fertility treatment including IVF. They decide to investigate finding a surrogate mother. Nina is a French teacher in high school and Wojtek is a mechanic in a garage – perhaps he is a part owner, I couldn’t be sure. The couple appear to be quite well off. One day, by chance they meet Magda when Nina inadvertently drives into Magda’s car, causing damage that Wojtek agrees to make good. They invite Magda, a young woman who works at the airport, to dinner as part of a campaign to persuade her to become a surrogate. Their argument is that they chose her because she is pretty.
This a début film for director Olga Chajdas who also co-wrote the screenplay with Marta Konarzewska and the star of the film Julia Kijowska who plays Nina. I recognised Kijowska from United States of Love (Poland 2016). Chajdas had plenty of filmmaking experience before making this feature. As Assistant Director she worked with the leading Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland and Holland’s daughter Kasia Adamik (who edited Nina). Most of the creative roles on this production are taken by women with the exception of music and cinematography by Andrzej Smolik and Tomasz Naumiuk respectively. The film is technically accomplished and is clearly attempting something new. That’s perhaps why it has divided audiences so much and why some of the reviews seem way off beam. Where does the problem lie?
First of all, Chajdas is clear that she isn’t making a (social) realist film. She doesn’t attempt to explain or fill in details about the backgrounds to the characters. This is an important point because in a sense the narrative is a fantasy in its presentation of lesbian culture in Poland where neither civil partnerships or same sex marriages are legal. (The film uses several locations in Germany, perhaps these include the lesbian clubbing scenes?) There is little mention in the film of the church, apart from a school retreat and when Nina’s younger sister is celebrating outside a church on her wedding day. Nor is there any presence of the Polish state infrastructure in relation to IVF, surrogacy or adoption. There is family and we do get a contrast between Nina’s mother, who is also her boss as the head teacher of the high school, and Wojtek’s father who is sick and in hospital (but still smoking – smoking and drinking are still pursued with gusto in this Poland). In a more realist film we might expect the social class conflict in the ‘mixed marriage’ to be filled out in more detail. Instead we get a couple of scenes in Nina’s classroom where the students are discussing Godard’s Le mépris (1963) – or at least what the title means (the bright student who knows it means ‘contempt’ is mocked). This appears to have enraged some reviewers who dismiss the classroom scenes as irrelevant. But this scene does have a narrative function as Nina wants her students to visit an exhibition which links Godard, Flaubert and an installation by a female Polish artist – Natalyia Bazowska’s ‘Birth Place’. Nina will later visit this installation with Magda.
The aesthetics of the film confirm the critique of realism. Much of the film seems to have been shot with filters and lighting that create a constant sense of characters somehow ‘out of’ the real world and in their own stories. I was reminded of earlier Polish cinema in which a cinematographer like Slawomir Idziak would create distinctive worlds for directors such as Kieslowski. Shallow focus is used to isolate the characters. There are scenes in tight close-up and relatively few in long shot. Scenes end abruptly and there are few ‘dead’ passages, i.e. when characters are travelling between locations. The overall feeling is quite intense.
The car incident brings Nina into contact with Magda (Eliza Rycembel) and soon it becomes apparent that though in the beginning Nina is searching for a surrogate, she is smitten by Magda despite herself. There might be a structural problem here. We know that Magda is a lesbian from the moment she appears on screen, before the car incident. Some audiences find it ‘unbelievable’ that Nina does not seem to realise this for some time. But the film’s title is ‘Nina’ and this her narrative about her own self-discovery.She has to admit to herself that she desires Magda and that takes some time, while we are introduced to Magda’s wide circle of gay friends who appear to have their own clubs and a sports team. I think this is the fantasy and that Polish culture is not quite as open to an LGBTQ+ lifestyle as the narrative suggests. I’m not the best judge of this and I recommend the review of the film by Jennie Kermode of Eye for Film. Kermode is particularly knowledgeable about East European cinema and her review discusses the way in which Chajdas creates a narrative of desire in a society where LGBTQ+ people need to see the possibility of living differently before they can actually create the conditions that allow it. Kermode also mentions the political changes in Poland that perhaps mean that the fantasy created for the film is likely to remain so, especially as President Andrzej Duda, a stated opponent of LGBTQ+ rights extension, was re-elected in 2020.
Nina is an accomplished film for a début. There seems to be agreement that at 130 minutes the film is too long, but Polish films do tend to be that length and this appears to be a ‘prestige production’ that has done well on the festival circuit. I think part of the problem is that in the UK and US audiences perhaps don’t have the patience to watch closely and think carefully about cultural issues that aren’t necessarily presented in the same way as they might expect. I do think that the role of Wojtek is slightly underwritten but overall I think the film works. There are odd comments by some reviewers about nudity and the sex scenes. They all seemed well thought through to me. I’m guessing that the last few enigmatic images of the film, after the wedding night party for Nina’s sister, might include a further reference to Natalyia Bazowska’s artworks of wild animals.
The film was released in the UK in 2019, but by the LGBTQ+ specialist distributor Peccadillo Pictures (which does also release ‘World Cinema’ titles), rather than the distributors who cater for the Polish diaspora audience in the UK. It is available in the UK both on DVD or as a rental download from Peccadillo. It’s also available on Amazon Prime and iTunes, I think. Here’s a trailer. The film is presented in the European widescreen ration of 1.66:1.