Imago: A Daughter’s Love in Performance

in 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Max Borg

It is not the first time that an actor has played a close relative on screen, but rarely has the personal connection been as powerfully conveyed through performance as in Imago, the second feature film of Polish director Olga Chajdas, which premiered in Karlovy Vary’s Proxima Competition. Set between 1987 and 1990, the film (a co-production of Poland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands) is based on the life of Ela Góra a.k.a Malwina the Cosmic Mother, played by her own daughter, the actress (and co-writer) Lena Góra.

In Poland, the communist regime is coming to an end, but it is not quite over yet. Ela struggles to balance her artistic aspirations with a life marked by dodgy romances, her family’s disapproval (with her own mother leading the pack when it comes to disparaging her achievements) and mental health issues that lead to at least one stay in a psychiatric facility. She is slightly out of sync with what is happening around her, aside from when she dons her new persona, gets on stage, and wins over a small but loyal audience (her main love interest among them) in a post-punk setting. Chajdas’ work is a major stepping stone in giving her much overdue recognition.

The mother-daughter conflict, also present when Ela herself gives birth and initially struggles to bond with her own child, provides very potent dramatic fuel for Lena Góra’s performance, as she fearlessly dives into the world that generated her and reconnects with her roots via acting, finding the key elements to take part in a project that is a tribute to a bygone decade, but carefully devoid of rose-tinted glasses or—in the case of Ela—outright hagiography. The film is on her side, while never hesitating to showcase her flaws as she navigates a microcosm she never feels fully part of, including a deliberate shift in pacing when she tries to live a “normal” life and briefly abandons the music world.  

Harkening back to works such as Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy (1986), Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) or even Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), Chajdas’ approach gives the Tricity area of the late 1980s a vibrant, anarchic energy drenched in cigarette smoke, carnal proximity and loud music. An ideal meeting point of arthouse and outhouse, as the director skilfully recreates a time period whose (sometimes literal) grey areas can be fascinating and repulsive at once. Euphoria and sadness go hand in hand, with the lust for life that drives Ela’s every move periodically giving way to a moodiness that is a hallmark of her dual existence, constantly teetering on the border between genius and madness. Góra’s performance is especially measured in these moments, as Ela’s bipolarism is treated as a fact and never as a joke or source for dramatic overacting (in fact, the way her mother and siblings react to her episodes, while darkly humorous, is actually quietly devastating, highlighting the lack of empathy for an individual who longs for understanding amid shifts in the status quo).

Uplifting and harrowing in equal measure, Chajdas’ sophomore directorial effort is a very modern look back on decades past, with a heretofore minor figure in the Polish music world reclaiming the spotlight after years of being overlooked by everyone. And it is quite fitting that, when her own family failed to recognize her issues as well as her achievements, her image should be rehabilitated through her daughter, whose powerful performance gives Ela the voice that her peers and time period tried their best to suppress. It is the ultimate declaration of daughterly love, with a wildly unconventional life recounted in all its messy glory.

Max Borg
Edited by Birgit Beumers