Money can buy outside help, opportunity and material possessions, but not happiness in “My Wonderful Wanda,” a punchy satire from Swiss auteur Bettina Oberli (“Late Bloomers”). Taking a wry but empathetic approach to the phenomenon of care migration, Oberli and her co-writer Cooky Ziesche focus on the changing relationship between one privileged Swiss family and their financially fragile Polish home-care worker over nine months. Naturalistically shot and structured as three chapters and an epilogue, it’s an engaging, mostly well-acted tale, full of surprising twists, even if some seem a bit too on the nose. Opening in theaters and virtual cinemas on April 23, this Zeitgeist Films release should segue from international film festival favorite to modest art-house hit.
Attractive, capable, 30-something single mother Wanda (Agnieszka Grochowska, always dignified) arrives in Switzerland on a bus packed with Polish women who work for rich families eager to outsource the mundane tasks of everyday life. Like Wanda, whose two young sons remain in her homeland with her parents, most of the women have children of their own back in Poland, and most are the primary wage earners for their families.
At the luxurious villa on the shores of Lake Zurich that is home to the dysfunctional Wegmeister-Gloor clan, Wanda is allocated a small, colorless room in the basement, one that family members heedlessly enter without bothering to knock. Her job is to care for 70-year-old Josef (André Jung, both poignant and provoking), the stroke-impaired patriarch. To bathe, toilet and stretch the limbs of this partially paralyzed man requires skill, strength and discretion, and are tasks that she executes professionally and with compassion. But we soon see that she and Josef have a private deal for other more intimate work performed on the sly.
Wanda’s relationship with the other family members is more fraught. They, too, want something from her — sometimes things that would be inappropriate to ask of someone on an equal financial footing. Josef’s elegant wife Elsa (Marthe Keller), having lost her Portuguese housekeeper, feels no compunction about asking Wanda to take on extra work in the kitchen and around the house, and tries to drive a hard bargain on the extra wages that she can well afford to pay.
Meanwhile, the immature, socially awkward Wegmeister-Gloor son, Gregor (a sympathetic Jacob Matschenz), 28, nurses a major crush on Wanda, but can’t manage to act on it, even when they both are under the influence of alcohol and moonlight. On the other hand, his type-A older sister Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr in a brittle, over-the-top performance that sometimes falls into caricature) is childishly upset when her father prefers Wanda’s care to hers. She constantly disparages Wanda as “the Pole” and suspects her of nefarious designs on the family’s finances. Her slick attorney husband Manfred (Anatole Taubman) doesn’t dare contradict her.
When an unexpected development in the second chapter shifts the personal dynamics established in the first, Elsa, Sophie and Manfred, concerned for the family reputation, try to throw money at the problem to make it go away without consulting those most concerned. Further revelations and complications in the third chapter contrast the parent-child relationships in the Wegmeister-Gloor family with those between Wanda and her patient, respectful, caring parents (Cezary Pazura, Agata Rzeszewki).
Although the screenplay resists making Wanda a victim, it doesn’t allow her as much room for development as the Wegmeister-Gloors. Until the epilogue when Wanda realizes that she has spent her entire life doing things for others and needs to find balance by following her own desires, she seems more of a catalyst than a character. Despite this quibble, there’s much to admire in the way the screenwriters invest subtle meaning in, and derive humor from, objects including bicycles and baby monitors, animals alive and dead, swims in the lake and bedrooms upstairs and downstairs. Also praiseworthy is clever, provocative dialogue pithily highlighting the difference in lifestyle among the fiscally privileged and those less so.
Apart from Austrian thesp Minichmayr who sometimes approaches the ridiculous, the rest of the ensemble cast are entirely in tune with Oberli’s desire for a tone that captures the pain and the humor of real life. Some of the best scenes are played in near silence, communicating more with mere looks than any dialogue could.
Although limited to one major location, the attractive widescreen lensing by Judith Kaufmann never lacks interest and uses framing to reinforce the film’s upstairs/downstairs, have/have-not theme. One gorgeous sequence that makes use of magical realism melts the heart.