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Imago Film Review: Manic, Immersive, Artistic

A woman has smoke coming out of her mouth in the film Imago

Olga Chajdas and Lena Góra’s Imago is a rebellious character study, full of cigarette smoke, artistic human expression, and mental illness.

Fueled by direct inspiration from her mother’s life, Lena Góra pairs up with director Olga Chajdas to create Imago, a story not only about the life of Ela Góra but also the life of Poland amidst turbulent political reforms. 

Ela (Lena Góra) struggles with a history of mental illness and bipolar disorder when she finds herself invigorated by the Polish underground punk scene. During a night in the club, she falls passionately in love with painter Stach (Waclaw Warchol) and joins a new-wave experimental band as a vocalist. Ela’s circle of avant-garde artists brings freedom to her spirit, but this life could pose a new set of challenges for her non-conformist nature. 

The protagonist navigates life as a woman, a mother, and a daughter in the challenging period of Polish history that is the 80s, all filtered through her fascinating understanding of reality and of herself. The script paints her persona with various odd quirks, carving her out to be a unique and interesting character to follow. It sparks audiences’ curiosity and hunger to know her peculiarity, straight away from the Girl Interrupted-esque beginning. 

On the surface, violent protests revolt against the communist regime in Poland, while, underneath, there’s a growing community of alienated artists seeking their own voices. We accompany Ela on her transformative encounter with the Dadaist underground art scene, and after we cross the doorstep into that world, we realize Imago’s themes have become larger than just Ela in the same way that she realizes they are larger than she is. She embodies the transcendental nature of the music and discovers her voice, which is depicted quite literally in her first performance with the band.

From then on, Olga Chajdas’ film becomes an avant-garde exploration of artistic human expression unbound by societal norms. It bounces back and forth between coming across as a soulful analysis of spiritual liberation through the means of art and an abstract fetishization of the tortured artists trope. It’s a fine line to walk with such an arthouse experimental narrative, since it’s difficult not to appear purposeless or snobbish in the cases when it does succumb to the stereotypes. Luckily, for me, those moments are not the dominating ones, even though they sure get dangerously near tipping the scales. The film dances on the edge of pretentious, but its immersive qualities are strong enough to prevail.

Two naked people kiss, leaning on a third, in the film Imago
Imago (Sofia Film Festival)

Imago expresses artistic freedom mostly through music but also through physical freedom, or, in other words, nudity. From a filmmaking perspective, whether the nudity is tastefully done here could be another debatable subject, but it certainly challenges the viewer to overcome that inner drive to find meaning, logic, or to indulge in the sensuality of the visuals.

There’s little to no context as to what Ela’s community of artists is rebelling against, besides brief glimpses into the outside world that are never on the forefront. You have to know your way around the political backdrop that serves as the canvas for Imago. 

All characters are using the only freedom they feel like they have to express their craving for another kind of existence. There’s an all-encompassing primal need to escape your physical circumstances –, not only where you live and how you live in the system that’s created for you, but also your body with all its flaws, needs, and limitations.

The third act loses momentum a bit as the story takes a turn that forces Ela to conform to what she’s been fighting against. The film introduces some fascinating parallels that tie together with the beginning and some scenes with unspoken symbolism, related to how Ela’s way of living and constant need for change are hurting her family and how she needs to confront it, but, overall, a lot of it feels at a discrepancy with what preceded.

Imago is a genre film that flies too close to the tropes of its genre and barely misses getting its wings burned. It’s a polarizing watch that will leave its audiences either put off by its shallow attempts at recreating a snapshot of the avant-garde Dadaist movement or entranced by the transcendental force of underground art as a form of escapism from an otherwise-bleak existence.

Imago was screened at the Sofia Film Festival on March 17-24, 2024.

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