It’s a classic bourgeois cliché to say that the housekeeper/caregiver/babysitter is ‘a part of the family’, a patronizing phrase that is usually a purposeful misrepresentation of the actual relationship between employer and employee (as we all know, you can’t fire a family member). My Wonderful Wanda (2020) takes off from this premise, the title being a condescending expression uttered by Josef (André Jung), the patriarch of the Wegmeister-Gloor family, to the titular Wanda (Agnieszka Grochowska), a Polish woman working for the wealthy Wegmeister-Gloor’s and taking care of Josef following a stroke. Arriving on a bus full of women presumably going to or looking for work, Wanda comes to the Wegmeister-Gloor’s multiple times a year, making money to return to Poland and take care of her two sons currently living with her parents. The family consists of Josef and his wife Elsa (Marthe Keller), a marriage that has cooled off long before his physical issues, and their children, Gregi (Jacob Matschenz) and Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr), adults who seem younger than they are due to their rather petulant demeanors.
Wanda’s services consistently extend beyond caregiving for Josef, as we see her thanklessly cook and clean, on call for any job at any time. To make extra money for her family, Wanda also provides sexual favors for Josef, but unexpectedly gets pregnant, inciting the events of the rest of the film as the cliché becomes true, and Wanda becomes a part of the family. The film is structured in three parts around Wanda’s returns to the Wegmeister-Gloor’s property, each return a re-contextualized new world of problems. Where the first part introduces us to the callous way Wanda is treated, part II revolves around the realization of the pregnancy, and part III depicts the birth of the child and the way the family deals with its parentage.
The realization of the pregnancy is both an intense shock to the Wegmeister-Gloor’s and a complication of the primary theme of the film: how we interact with familial structures and what kind of care emerges both inside and outside of this traditional construction. What’s interesting about Wanda is that while treated as less-than, she has a more intimate relationship with the members of the family than they do with each other. A telling scene has Wanda dodging Gregi and Sophie in the kitchen as she tries to make dinner amongst a particularly nasty fight between them, where she bears witness to a private moment but her presence is essentially forgotten amongst the yelling and finger-pointing. The embarrassment of old Josef impregnating the ‘help’ is not lost on the Wegmeister-Gloors, especially Elsa, as her previously cool and collected mannerisms start to feel more and more tired, her fight to repress true feelings manifesting in exasperated sigh after exasperated sigh. Elsa and Sophie both see Wanda’s pregnancy as blackmail, a way for Wanda to take some of their massive wealth, where an abortion would be “money well invested”. The film is concerned with their transition away from this mindset, a recognition that Wanda’s child is something that must be cared for, even if it falls outside of the traditional structure of the family. However, this transition requires certain moments to land, and in a film where emotions often register as false due to the Wegmeister-Gloor’s particular emotional issues, navigating these moments proves tricky, where a sad look out onto a body of water or sudden aberrant outburst is often utilized as shorthand for profundity.
The Wegmeister-Gloor’s are a family that doesn’t talk to each other, everyone constantly keeping up polite appearances but concealing an intense sense of dejection, lives severely lacking in any real joy. Wanda’s presence in the film begins as a sort of witness to this empty spectacle of wealthy problems, all amidst this environment seemingly created to constantly remind her that she is functionally a possession to the Wegmeister-Gloor’s. Director Bettina Oberli mentioned in an interview how we “quickly see the characters are prisoners of their circumstances”, an apt description that betrays a major issue with the film, which is that the Wegmeister-Gloor’s seem less like rounded out characters but instead dimensionless marionettes spinning around in their unrestrictive circumstances, signifiers of upper-class unhappiness almost completely lacking in agency. The film wants Wanda to provide a foil to this, a working woman struggling to provide for her children makes for sturdier ground for a soul to emerge from, but in its attempt to articulate her unfortunate circumstances, the film denies her any interiority, reducing her to unrewarding work, facetimes with her children, and sullen facial expressions. Her particular combination of competence and patience is a necessary requirement for her occupation, but it ends there, an underdeveloped affection between her and Gregi being the only chance she gets to express any desires of her own.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
A wonderful international cast performs excellently under Oberli’s direction and the cinematography is adorned with beautiful greens and blues, but My Wonderful Wanda suffers from an unfocused plot that can’t untangle itself from its own elements. The film understands where each of its character’s needs to go, but can’t quite get them there, often mistaking surface critique for depth of insight. It is strange that while Wanda provides the narrative engine of the film, she forms a relatively tangential part of its design, relegated to reaction rather than action, and blunting the emotional resonance of her story as a result. While it contains the components of a very strong film, My Wonderful Wanda leaves a lot to be desired.