Agnieszka Holland's 1981 film A Lonely Woman from is one of the most depressing portraits of the late Polish People's Republic: kilometre-long queues for shops, poverty, a terrifying lack of perspectives, and mutual adversity.
Such a critical film could only have been realised at the time of the “Solidarność Carnival”, during a brief political thaw in 1980-1981. Sadly, the institution of the martial law buried the chances to distribute the film: Kobieta samotna (A Lonely Woman) spent six years on the shelf and did not premiere until 1987. Even though Holland's drama is embedded in a specific historical moment, it significantly stands out among other works of the cinema of moral anxiety and in many respects is still up to date.
The main character, Irena Misiak (Maria Chwalibóg), is a postwoman, raising her son Boguś (Paweł Witczak) by herself. The woman works like a slave in order to support her child, but she still hardly manages to get by. Irena received accommodation from the government and she lives in a small, cramped room near railway tracks. The living conditions are abysmal, as the large family from the next door apartment dreamt about taking over this space and now takes revenge on the neighbour, stealing fuses, hiding the water pump, and so on. Irena has no money nor connections, so she is kicked around at work and not treated seriously by her family. This situation also affects Boguś, who, being the poorest pupil, becomes the class scapegoat and is accused of all sorts of rowdy mischief. A ray of hope about the fate of Misiaks comes with the appearance of Jacek (Bogusław Linda), a young and – as it would seem – sensitive pensioner, who declares his love for Irena. However, it is clear from the very start that this story about a lonely woman will not end happily…
One of the film's scenes is particularly poignant: a distraught Irena, who has brought herself to stealing money, crosses the street with her soon, indifferently passing a demonstration calling for a release of political prisoners. In 1981, when the artistic crowd united in its eulogies to the magnificent Solidarność, Holland did not get carried away by the overly enthusiastic atmosphere and presented a story of an impoverished, forsaken woman, who remains practically untouched by the social changes. Irena has not a drop of political awareness, and she doesn't know whether to seek justice from the authorities or Solidarność, all she wants is to earn a living and get an apartment. To some extent, it is her own fault: she is unable to think realistically about changing her position, she follows dubious advice and utterly naive illusions. Nonetheless, Holland does not aim to criticise her character, but demonstrate the situation of excluded people who are completely bypassed by any big breakthroughs. In Kobieta samotna, the image of society in the Polish People's Republic escapes the stereotypical dichotomy of government and the opposition, and is much more complex than in its contemporary Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron).
Holland's film does not focus on demonstrations and protests, but on the life of a helpless, abandoned woman. Jacek Petrycki's camerawork eloquently illustrates the heavy and stuffy atmosphere of Irena's world, penetrates the claustrophobic interiors and unfriendly public spaces, full of nosy and hostile people. At the same time, as the director pointed out, Petrycki's cinematography carries a certain pathos and sensuality, which shields the protagonists from the role of scrutinised specimen. Interestingly, Holland breaks the naturalistic convention of the film twice, diverging towards a pure… surrealism. In one of the scenes, we see the bothersome neighbours collapsing after they were “shot” by Boguś. In another one, we see a flying Irena drop a letter for her son from the sky. This shows that Holland distanced herself not only from the mental, but also stylistic patterns that ended up dominating the cinema of moral anxiety. Kobieta samotna could be accused of excessive pessimism, emerging not only in its description of reality, but also in the plot, abounding in misfortune and tragic coincidences. However Holland's perspective, devoid of cheap sentimentalism, and excellent performances by Maria Chwalibóg and Bogusław Linda make Kobieta samotna one of the most moving examples of social cinema in the history of Polish film.
Kobieta samotna (A Lonely Woman), Poland, 1981. Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Screenplay: Agnieszka Holland, Maciej Karpiński. DOP: Jacek Petrycki. Music: Jan Kanty Pawluśkiewicz. Scenography: Jerzy Śnieżawski, Danuta Węgrzyn. Cast: Maria Chwalibóg (Irena Misiak), Bogusław Linda (Jacek Grochala), Paweł Witczak (Boguś), Sława Kwaśniewska (Irena's aunt), Ryszard Kotys (Władek), Krzysztof Zaleski (Marolewski), and others. Production: Zespół Filmowy X (X Film Studio), Polish Television. Colour, 92 minutes.
a lonely woman
man of iron
jan kanty pawluśkiewicz
cinema of moral anxiety
Author: Robert Birkholc, transl. AM, December 2015