Karolina Bielawska’s Call Me Marianna follows a fortysomething Polish woman in the process of finalizing her sex-change operation. Marianna must sue her parents to be allowed to go through with the sex change and is increasingly devastated by their refusal to accept her decision. Instead, she must turn to friends, whom she met while already living as a woman, for support. And although Marianna’s ex appears later in the film, as a forgiving, protective maternal figure, there’s always a lingering sense that some of her side of the story isn’t being fully voiced, signaling at both anger and repression. The children are never present, other than in photographs, and their distancing deepens our sense of Marianna’s alienation.
Made mostly in an observational style, with spare family-video footage, the film poignantly hinges on the contrast between the images of Marianna’s past as Wojtek, a married family man, and her new experiences as a woman, while shopping for bras and dresses at local markets, applying makeup before a date, or sporting a two-piece bathing suit on the beach. As we partake in Marianna’s joy at inhabiting a woman’s body, her former male self becomes more spectral, testifying to the fluidity of gender. In one evocative scene, Marianna is put under an anesthesia, only to awaken some time later, already after her male organs have been transposed into a vagina. In another, she dances gracefully on ice, alongside her new boyfriend.
But beyond Marianna’s delight, or her pain at the lack of reconciliation with her family, there lie even deeper aches. Bielawska makes us aware of this from the start by framing Marianna’s journey to womanhood as a play within a play. Thus the film opens with a rehearsal reading for a play that Marianna appears to have written based on her own story. She’s wheeled onto the stage and two actors take their places at the rehearsal table, and only slowly do we realize that the actors play, respectively, Wojtek and his ex, a mirror image to the actual story told in the documentary.
The rehearsal serves a double function: On one hand, it’s a therapeutic device, allowing Marianna to process some of the pain and disappointments that take hold of her, and providing a subtext to the real-life scenes, and on the other, it creates a sense of disjunction, for the Marianna we see in rehearsal is in a wheelchair, her body fragile and her speech impaired, clearly not the same robust Marianna that we follow in real time.
By setting up two temporalities, one static at the rehearsal, shot mostly in medium shots, and another unfolding gradually and often with evocative close-ups of Marianna’s face, Bielawska sets up a dramatic tension that extends beyond the sex change, yet is intricately connected to it. Indeed, we learn that Marianna’s eventual illness is partially a result of her hormonal treatments, a bitter price she pays for her self-realization. Yet Call Me Marianna isn’t in any way a cautionary tale. Without being saccharine, Bielawska follows Marianna’s thorny recovery, supported by her new partner. And while the documentary eschews any easy resolution, mostly thanks to its circular structure, it becomes an effective capsule of a life remade.