Two families from two completely different worlds collide in Bettina Oberli’s biting satire “My Wonderful Wanda”. The Swiss film had its world premiere at Tribeca where it won a special jury mention in the Nora Ephron Award category. Now this prickly yet often witty dramedy makes it way to the States sporting a wacky “Knives Out” vibe but with a distinct European flavor.
The story (co-written by Oberli and Cooky Ziesche) centers around a Polish single mother named Wanda (played by a well measured Agnieszka Grochowska). She works as a caretaker for Josef Wegmeister-Gloor (André Jung), a 70-year-old family patriarch who was left paralyzed following a severe stroke. Her unique arrangement with the Wegmeister-Gloor family has her traveling to their lakeside villa in Switzerland where she stays for a month or so before going back to her village in Poland to tend to her two young boys. Leaving her sons is tough but she needs the money and the wealthy Wegmeister-Gloors pay well even if they don’t always appreciate ‘the help’.
It doesn’t take long to notice the movie’s interest in class and it becomes a central theme that runs throughout Oberli’s ‘three chapters and an epilogue’ structure. Wanda and the Wegmeister-Gloors exist on opposite ends of the social and economic ladders – something Wanda is constantly reminded of by her casually insensitive and often oblivious employers. Yet despite the varying degrees of blue-blooded haughtiness in the Wegmeister-Gloor household, Wanda’s presence highlights how empty their lives have become. And when a particular part of her ‘care’ for Josef leads to her becoming pregnant with his child, the upper-crust rancor really kicks in.
While Wanda is the main character, the Wegmeister-Gloor ménage all have key roles to play and each come with their own individual complexity. Josef is a youthful spirit trapped inside a failing body and he likes Wanda more than his own family (“Don’t leave me with these lunatics,” he pleads). Yet his ‘affection’ for her always comes second to his own sense of privilege. Josef’s wife Elsa (Marthe Keller) genuinely cares for her family but is far too adsorbed in their social standing. “We have a reputation to uphold,” she declares after hearing of Wanda’s pregnancy. Their jittery son Gregor (Jacob Matschenz) is the reluctant heir to his father’s company, but is far more interested in birdwatching and Wanda. Then there’s the snobbish and entitled daughter Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr) who only seem to care about her inheritance and who callously refers to Wanda as “the Pole” whenever she’s not around.
Considering all of that, you would expect this to be a movie with a clear-cut hero and villains. After all, Wanda is a woman just trying to take care of her family while the Wegmeister-Gloors exude an air of superiority. But Oberli smartly keeps from overtly vilifying anyone. The film clearly (and rightly) sets our sympathies with Wanda. But even she makes some icky decisions that are hard to get behind. So we end up with an assortment of richly layered characters. Some we want hug, others we want to (figuratively) choke. But most importantly we understand them because Oberli and Ziesche take time and allow them to be more than one-note character types.
Things get pretty crazy in the last chapter when Wanda’s parents and her two sons pay a surprise visit to the Wegmeister-Gloor estate. It’s here that the movie’s clash of class and culture goes full-frontal. Yet (as with everything else in the film) Oberli keeps it all in check, never allowing things to go over-the-top and never losing the all-important human element. And as everything comes to a head, the film’s comical and combative vibes gives way to a overarching sense of sadness and uncertainty. It makes for a fitting finish to a movie that (for the most part) succeeds in blending levity and solemnity. “My Wonderful Wanda” opens April 23rd in select cities.
VERDICT – 4 STARS