When Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) leaves the convent to meet her only living relative, nothing she has learned from the nuns has prepared her to meet her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a woman who represents everything she has been taught not to be. In fact, there is so much about Wanda’s worldly ways that Anna is ignorant of, that at first we can’t help but feel as if writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski has created her just for the sake of being a plot device. With her chain-smoking, constant drinking and promiscuity, Wanda seems to be in the story just to show Anna that the world is full of sin and she should stay away from it. But the more we come to know of her, the more complex she becomes and the more we understand that she’s not simply a “lesson” for Anna, but in fact the key to unlocking her whole existence.
As played by Kulesza, Wanda is a mystery we can’t wait to uncover. Lit as if she was a femme fatale in a classic noir, we realize that Wanda has much more in common with Philip Marlowe than with any of his damsels in distress; once a powerful woman, she has been reduced to a walking cliché, as she tries to find meaning to her own life in a damaged Poland. Kulesza gives the character layers that allow her to be maternal, selfish and erotic all at once. As she takes her niece on one twisted road trip to teach her who she was, we understand why Anna would come not to be repelled by her aunt’s lifestyle, but actually come to aspire to it.
Kulesza also allows her character’s flaws to show in heartbreaking ways, especially when we least expect it to. Watch the way she reacts to Trzebuchowska’s subtle horror upon realizing her parent’s fate, it’s a moment where we see the actress hold back out of what we will come to understand as love, or at least the only kind of love she knows how to provide. Where Ida could’ve simply been a film about the effects of WWII in Poland, the characters at its center make it so much more than that, and Kulesza in particular will prove to haunt you for weeks after you’ve seen the film.
Ida is now playing in limited release.