Pieces of a Woman: Szumowska & Englert Compose Compassionate Portrait of Trans Woman
“Testosterone is power,” confirms one physician advising Andrzej, the protagonist of Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert’s latest, Woman Of…, which parallels a trans woman’s eternally inhibited sex reassignment with the shifting political landscape of Poland over four decades. It’s a statement reflecting the staunchly heteronormative and conservative sentiments of a country struggling to divorce itself from the grip of nationalism in its post-Communist era, where manliness remains close to godliness. An anguish crystallized by countless consultations with a medical community in a country whose policies actively impede women and the LGBTQ+ community is one of many shifting facets of Andrzej’s journey to becoming Aniela.
Englert, who often works as Szumowska’s cinematographer, but who has co-directed Never Gonna Snow Again (2020) and 2022’s Infinite Storm (read review), once again does double duty, supplying Aniela’s journey with a beautifully rendered palette. There’s much visual splendor in these navigations of Polish periods, ranging from 1982 to 2022, with its lead character often framed between two distinct, rigid obstacles, the metaphor for her reality existing between a rock and a hard place.
In 1980s Tomaszów, Andrzej (Mateusz Wieclawek) finds himself discharged from the draft when its discovered he has painted toenails. Two years pass, and he meets a young nurse, Isabel, their meet cute made all the more notable over they exchange the broken off genitals of a cherubic bust. Years pass, they have a child, and Andrzej begins to experience what would come to be called gender dysphoria, but his diminished libido finds physicians prescribing him testosterone. Another decade passes, and Andrzej (now played by Malgorzata Hajewska) has access to the internet, researching information about transsexuality. His wife (now Joanna Kulig) has resigned herself to a certain reality about Andrzej, and they have another child as he begins exploring other resources, wearing women’s clothes under his own. When Isabel discovers a diary containing over a decade’s worth of his slow progression, a door is finally opened, and Andrzej begins hormone therapy, and asks to be called Aniela. However, the rift this transition causes with her parents (who live with them), her job, and the legal change of her gender proves to be more difficult than either she or Isabel could have imagined.
Bridges factor frequently in Woman Of…, a site of freedom reflecting opposing choices. While Andrzej may be contemplating suicide, his position in the middle of these various structures also signifies being stuck on the metaphorical train of life, hurtling forward on a predestined track. The earlier sequences through the 1980s and early 90s feature Mateusz Wieclawek, slowly introduced to the possibility of what being trans mean through news articles, albeit items meant to sensationalized. Like much of the film, it’s power lies in the quiet reverberations, and one of Wieclawek’s best scenes is his response to an article he reads in a library, his whole frame shaking through an epiphany.
However, it’s Malgorzata Hajewska who is the supreme joy of Woman Of…, a trans actor who takes over the reigns of Andrzej in the 2004 segment (and who previously appeared in Szumowska’s 2008 film 33 Scenes from Life). The switch allows for Szumowska and Englert to do something quite visually exalting as Hajewska slowly becomes Aniela, and all the colors of her life even out. However, there are no real satisfying moments of triumph, and like many trans and queer people forced to exist in the periphery, are forced to be contented with the meager scraps they’re thrown. One such scrap ends up being Joanna Kulig, initially distressed once she realizes the truth about her husband. But there’s a warmth which supersedes the anguish of their reality, an acceptance and reverence for one another which makes Woman Of… feel affirming in ways many films from homophobic cultures do not (such as Russia’s Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov’s The Man Who Surprised Everyone, 2018). In many ways, it reflects the progress of a country decades behind in establishing any real equanimity (compared to something like Jane Anderson’s 2003 US title Normal, with Tom Wilkerson and Jessica Lange in a similar situation).
Aniela, who first must divorce her partner (as a change of her gender marker would make her marriage to a woman illegal) and then sue her parents for independence, her experience exemplifies the uphill battle for trans people in Poland, purposefully and bureaucratically designed to be as arduous as possible (not to mention the economic toll of tranistioning, with Szumowska & Englert wisely including a scene about the cost of Aniela’s hormones, which she must pay full price for since she’s not a cis woman).
And yet there’s a tranquility to Woman Of… which sets it apart from the miserabilism we’ve come to expect in depictions of trans people overcoming every conceivable obstacle (including a cruel criminal sentencing in which a biased judge robs Aniela of more time, having resorted to fake phone cards upplied by her brother, who walks away without being charged).
In Szumowska’s increasingly prolific filmography, she has frequently explored the plight of the outcast, both through the stories of women (with Kulig having worked on 2011’s Elles), and also with the queer community, her latest resembling one of her best films to date, 2013’s In the Name Of… (including the ellipses of its title without an antecedent suggesting the unexplored and invisible stories of these communities). The title is also an homage to the works of Poland’s most revered auteur, Andrzej Wajda, whose titles include Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981). As much of an indictment as it is a portrait of resilience, another more helpful physician supplies the sentiment carried by the film, “It’s never too late.”
Reviewed on September 8th at the 2023 Venice Film Festival – In Competition. 132 Mins.