Polish Film Festival opener Nina has a strong erotic charge

In Olga Chajdas’s film, a woman seeks a surrogate mother and then falls in love with her

NINA (Olga Chajdas) at the Ekran Toronto Polish Film Festival, Monday (November 5), 9:15 pm, at the Isabel Bader. 130 minutes. ekran.ca. Festival runs to November 11. Rating: NNN

You have to hand it to Olga Chajdas. She’s willing to take risks in her lesbian-themed Nina, and though not all of them pay off, her story about an infertile couple trying to have a child is consistently engaging. 

Nina (Julia Kijowska) and Wojtek (Andrzej Konopka) have come to the realization that they cannot conceive a baby and plan to find a surrogate. When Nina backs into Magda’s (Eliza Rycembel) car close to Wojtek’s auto body shop, he returns home to Nina suggesting that they try to recruit Magda.

Magda’s a younger, free-spirited lesbian who goes to clubs to pick up sex partners while her girlfriend is flying the skies as a flight attendant. The arrangement works as long as Magda’s alone when she gets home.

After Nina comes to the couple’s house for dinner, Nina tries many strategies to engage Magda in the birth project. She takes her to an art installation that recreates a woman’s womb and introduces what ought to be off-putting discussions about Magda’s medical history. And when she finds herself with Magda in a queer club, her motivations change: she’s getting turned on. Soon they’re in bed and the problems begin.

Not every aspect of the film works. A lot of it is very dark, shot in low light with a camera designed to do so. Presumably the idea is to reflect Nina’s uncertainty. “Am I seeing all this with clear eyes?” she seems to be asking. But film-wise, dark is dark.

There’s a dip in the middle – the movie’s a bit long – and some slack writing in the first section, when it’s not clear whether Nina and Wojtek’s emotional bond can survive the surrogacy process. And the scene where the three meet for the first time seems improbable.

But there’s a reason why the movie won the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Big Screen Award. The performances are excellent, Kijowska in a perpetual clench and Rycembel all relaxed and open. And scenes among Magda’s friends, who discourage her from a getting involved with another straight woman, resonate with reality. Most important, writer/director Chajdas grasps how the intimacy of a surrogacy arrangement is emotionally fraught.

Chajdas, who has collaborated with the great Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa the TV series Treme), is plainly interested in the power of art. Nina teaches French to high school students and sneaks in references to female Polish artists when she’s supposed to be talking about Jean-Luc Godard. And Chajdas has a field day with subversive art references, including to American photographer Nan Golden. 

The queer bar where Magda and Nina first dance is like nothing I’ve ever seen: huge and opening out onto the street. There’s certainly no such thing in contemporary Warsaw, where Nina is set. It’s all part of Chajdas’s commitment to a future vision of lesbian life and brings added pleasure to the proceedings.

And this is a hot movie – something lesbians are always yearning for. 

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