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'My Wonderful Wanda': Film Review

Aliocha Merker
Marthe Keller plays a wealthy matriarch whose family is dealt shocking news in an ensemble comic drama from Swiss filmmaker Bettina Oberli.

My Wonderful Wanda takes its title (zingier in the original German: Wanda, Mein Wunder) from a line of dialogue, an affectionate and somewhat deluded exclamation by a 70-year-old bedridden Swiss man to his 30-something Polish caretaker. The two have a secret, a side deal, that will disrupt the already shaky serenity of the man's family and draw hers into a clash of cultures and classes. Bettina Oberli is more interested in the interplay of her characters than a barbed look at geopolitics, an approach that clicks only to a point in this well-performed but overlong and uneven feature.

The central character (Agnieszka Grochowska) is one of the many women who travel from Eastern Europe to wealthier parts of the Continent to work as in-home caregivers. The story opens as she returns to Switzerland for a three-month stint at the lakeside house of a well-to-do family whose industrialist patriarch, Josef (André Jung), has been felled by a stroke. Wanda tends to his needs with a matter-of-fact efficiency, whether she's lifting him onto the toilet or responding to his middle-of-the-night pleas, via baby monitor, for sex.

Those extracurricular encounters bring Wanda much-needed extra cash for her family back home; in their Warsaw high-rise apartment, her parents care for her two young sons (Bruno Rajski and Iwo Rajski) during her absences in the name of a paycheck. Grochowska effortlessly conveys Wanda's groundedness: In all her dealings with her often childish employers, she displays forbearance, perceptiveness and pragmatism. And she more than holds her own in a salary negotiation with Josef's wife, Elsa (a terrifically warm and enigmatic Marthe Keller).

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Until she smashes things wide open with the news that she's pregnant by Josef, Wanda helps Elsa ballast the family's increasingly rocky ship. Within their world of moneyed, lived-in elegance (fine design work by Marion Schramm and Laura Locher, the quiet beauty of the Lake Zürich setting well captured in Judith Kaufmann's camerawork), all is not well with the Wegmeister-Gloors.

Son Gregor (Jacob Matschenz), with his boyish crush on Wanda, is clearly unhappy about being forced into the family's building-materials business, often referred to with a royal "the firm." His true interest, birds, finds rather mixed expression, and though the screenplay, by Cooky Ziesche and the director, avoids a predictable outcome for the character, neither does it find an entirely satisfying one. That's true of the film as a whole; there's something held back in its touches of farce.

The broader satirical swipes have far less oomph than the small observations, as when Josef recognizes the arrival of his overbearing daughter, Sophie (the terrifically expressive Birgit Minichmayr), and her lawyer husband, Manfred (Anatole Taubman), by the sound of their BMW's engine. That the family is flailing beneath its stately surface is perfectly encapsulated in the disconnect between the petulant Josef and the perpetually exasperated Sophie.

But it's in the understated disconnect between Elsa and Josef that the movie strikes its richest notes, thanks to superb turns by the two actors. Jung navigates a line between ludicrous and pathetic as Josef, whose feelings of shame and diminishment give way to comical male pride at the prospect of being a father again. Elsa understands that the marital love is long gone, if it ever existed, and Heller suggests a lifetime of putting on a good face — but also, beneath it, an unbroken spirit, resiliency and wisdom; children, she tells her daughter, are "no guarantee for our happiness."

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Oberli (Late Bloomers, With the Wind) and Ziesche structure the story in three acts, each beginning with Wanda's arrival from Poland by bus. The seasons change with each arrival, and so does Wanda's status vis-à-vis the family. The possessive "my" in the film's title indicates not just Josef's romantic fantasy but a general sense of class entitlement. Wanda is the family's "help," "the girl," and, after another employee departs, an occasional "cleaning lady."

The Wegmeister-Gloors circle the wagons to protect money and property, and Manfred becomes more interested in family matters than he has been in years. Agreements are drawn up, provoking Wanda's ferociously proud father (Cezary Pazura) to enter the fray, wife (Agata Rzeszewska) and grandchildren in tow.

In this last section especially, the storytelling could have been tighter and punchier. But while the farcical jabs fall short, Oberli and her cast never indulge in caricature or broad-stroke Polish-vs.-Swiss stereotypes. And the way the movie's least sympathetic character softens in the final stretches, revealing vulnerability as well as fortitude, proves unexpectedly moving.

As to the ultimate effect of Wanda on the family, there's more than a bit of the magical-pregnant-lady trope at work here, but there's a winking acknowledgment of this in the film, and particularly in Grochowska's knowing smile. It's Keller, though, who taps into emotions that go deeper than the plot, in ways that are specific and affecting. Defying easy categorization, her performance is the most memorable, matching the exquisite setting every step of the way.

Distributor: Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber
Production company: Zodiac Pictures
Cast: Agnieszka Grochowska, Marthe Keller, André Jung, Birgit Minichmayr, Jacob Matschenz, Anatole Taubman, Cezary Pazura, Agata Rzeszewska, Bruno Rajski, Iwo Rajski
Director: Bettina Oberli
Screenwriters: Cooky Ziesche, Bettina Oberli
Producers: Lukas Hobi, Reto Schaerli
Director of photography: Judith Kaufmann
Production designer: Marion Schramm
Costume designer: Laura Locher
Editor: Kaya Inan
Music: Grandbrothers (Erol Sarp and Lukas Vogel)
Casting: Corinna Glaus, Magdalena Szwarcbart

In German and Polish

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