Polish Cinema: A Lonely Woman (Agnieszka Holland, 1987, Poland)

Filmed in 1981 during a cultural thaw in Poland which also saw the release of Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron, Agnieszka Holland’s A Lonely Woman wasn’t released in Poland or internationally until 1987. The film was the last film Holland shot in Poland for a long period of time, as she would emigrate to France shortly before the imposition of martial law in December 1981. While political at its core, A Lonely Woman is notable for its absence of political content. While our protagonist Irena, a middle-aged single mother living on the outskirts of Wroclaw, is aware of the happenings with the Solidarity movement, she ultimately feels disconnected from it. She is concerned with making it through each day, and providing for her son on her meager salary as a postal worker. 
Holland’s film is perceptive in showing how the grand political movements of the day often leave behind the most marginalized members of society. A Lonely Woman is particularly concerned with the plight of single women in Poland. Irena cannot catch a break. She faces obstacles in her working life, in her family life, and even amongst the parents at her son’s school. In one particularly powerful scene, the parents at the school have a meeting where they accuse Irena’s son Bogus of destroying the Constitution Day decorations. When they suggest that she pay the damages, she lashes out at them, telling them that they are making her a scapegoat because she has no one to defend her.
Tragedy ensues as Irena becomes romantically involved with the disabled pensioner Jacek, played by Boguslaw Linda, who wants to escape Poland and bring her with him. But Jacek is revealed to be yet another abuser in Irena’s life. The couples’ romanticized vision of the West is quickly demolished. The piling on of sorrows might seem like overkill if not for the performance of Maria Chwalibog, who brings a genuine pathos and emotional resonance.


8/10

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