The glossy veneer of fame, fortune and respectability of a well-to-do family rapidly loses its shine in Bettina Oberli’s My Wonderful Wanda. A sinister-turned-bittersweet human drama told in three acts, chapter one begins as Wanda (Agnieszka Grochowska) arrives in Switzerland by bus and is met by Gregor (Jacob Mateschenz) at the station.
Clearly not her first trip to this part of the world from her home in Poland, Wanda resumes old household routines, caring for the bedbound, patriarchal family head, Josef (André Jung). His elegant wife, Elsa (a terrific, fiercely restrained Marthe Keller), dotes on her husband, and Gregor – or Gregi as he is boyishly nicknamed – dotes on Wanda, a few years his senior. Not so much a love triangle as a messy accident waiting to happen. Behind the closed doors of this lakeside paradise it is clear that there’s trouble afoot.
Welcomed back with more than open arms, the boundaries of an acceptable employer-patient-carer relationship are unexpectedly shattered when Josef calls out, via a kind of baby monitor, to Wanda during the night. No words are exchanged, but money passes hands, as she is given a wedge of bank notes for sex. The silent understanding, and indeed willingness on Wanda’s part, shows that this has been previously mutually agreed upon. But why would Wanda undertake such an act? With no suspicion or knowledge, Elsa’s congenial, hostess with the mostess smile is unbroken when Josef refuses to attend his own birthday dinner party, claiming a dizzy spell confined him to bed.
Far more than a servant, then, but not quite a fully-fledged member of the family, we navigate the upstairs-downstairs divide with Wanda in the first act, the film’s strongest. The pitch-perfect tension of the dialogue (Oberli co-wrote the script with Cooky Ziesche), and pregnant pauses that may or may not unearth secrets and lies, is carried off with aplomb by the gifted cast and strong direction. Initially – wrongly, we know – accused of having stolen the notes well above and beyond her negotiated earnings by ever-cynical sister, Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr), the consequences of what is passed off as nothing more than a financial transaction become abundantly clear when Wanda later returns.
An unexpected bump, especially considering Josef’s supposed infertility, really puts the cat amongst the pigeons. A miraculous (and unexplained) change of course brings a youthful vigour and ability to stand to the previously invalid father-to-be. However, with the threat of reputational ruin, inheritances stolen, divorce – worse still, public humiliation – the family adopts a war footing. And it is here – and into the third act – that My Wonderful Wanda rather plateaus. In seeking to resolve the issue of this surprise addition to the family through pay-offs, legal wrangling and false paternity declarations, is Oberli saying that the richer nations of Europe exploit or undervalue their industrious, at times financially desperate, neighbours to such an extent?
Equating Wanda’s sexual act, and subsequent carrying of a child she may or may not keep, in order to earn additional money to better provide for her own two boys, with the gifting of a literal cash-cow, to be milked for profit, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth that is not matched by the almost harmonious tone of the film’s third act conclusion.
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Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63