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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Andrzej Zulawski: Untamable Heroines

Isabelle Adjani in Possession. Photo courtesy Bleeding Light Film Group
Possession (1981), director Andrzej Zulawski’s best-known film, commences as a study of a marriage in meltdown. An autobiographical cri de coeur from a filmmaker whose wife (Polish star Malgorzata Braunek) left him and their young son to become a Buddhist priest, Possession focuses initially on the husband, Mark (Sam Neill), who stalks and beats his unfaithful spouse (Isabelle Adjani). With eyes dilated and words ground out in an I’m-trying-to-be-patient pitch, the typically placid Neill sets his sights on Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” moment from the preceding year’s The Shining.

The physical isolation and family dynamic of Mark, Anna, and their young son unavoidably call to mind Kubrick’s film, and that association may be the only preparation a first-timer will have for Possession’s midpoint shift into mind-bending, Cronenbergian science fiction. When Zulawski at last turns his attention to Mark’s wife, he reveals that Anna’s hideout is not a trysting place—it’s a nest for the viscous puddle of goo to which she has given birth. Her own insanity, far worse than Mark’s, has migrated from the mind to the body. Possession became the only film to win a major award at Cannes and get banned in Britain as a “video nasty.”

Zulawski is best-known for Possession, but he has made a dozen films. They share its fever-dream intensity of expression, its bizarre obsessions and raw emotions, its unique penchant for literalizing ideas that other directors would render as symbols or subtext. It is a cinema of mostly highs and few lows, sustained beyond the breaking point and gratifying even as it slams the spectator into sensory overload.

Watch the trailer for the series (NOTE: video contains graphic and potentially disturbing content):

Born to Polish nobility in 1940, Zulawski studied in France and worked as an assistant to director Andrzej Wajda. His first feature, The Third Part of the Night (1971), drew upon his father’s memories of surviving the Holocaust as a human feeder for the bloodsucking lice that produced a vital vaccine. An 18th-century trail of nightmarish and possibly supernatural bloodshed, The Devil (1972) codified Zulawski’s early hallucinatory style of extreme wide-angle lenses and a restless handheld camera. An allegory for the 1968 protests, The Devil was banned as soon as the censors woke up, and Zulawski fled to Paris.

A Pygmalion figure, Zulawski became a legendary director of actresses in his French films, using what the press described as “voodoo” (he spent time in Haiti in the ‘70s) to draw out uncomfortably intimate performances: Romy Schneider, laid bare without makeup in That Most Important Thing: Love (1975); Valerie Kaprisky, dancing spastically in the nude in La femme publique (1984); Sophie Marceau, who became his lover and frequent star, shedding her teen-cutie image in the gangster musical L’amour braque (1985). Few directors can boast a more full-frontal filmography and Zulawski’s cinéma du perv strode a fine line between male-gaze voyeurism and feminist empathy. Always self-questioning, Zulawski inserted narcissistic auteur-exploiter figures in his films, especially That Most Important… and La femme publique, films about filmmaking. Even On the Silver Globe (1988), Zulawski’s unfinished space-epic film maudit, fashioned one of its astronauts as a video diarist.

For Szamanka (1996), Zulawski returned to Poland and discovered an Amazonian waitress to play another of his untamable heroines. Stalking the streets of Warsaw in Amelia Earhart garb, this is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-demon (Iwona Petry) gradually prevails in a sexual power struggle with a hapless prof (Boguslaw Linda). Szamanka is wall-to-wall sex, and the effluent-spewing, brain-eating Petry accelerates the trademark physicality of the Zulawski performer into near-epilepsy. The Polish critics mistook it for self-parody, a career-threatening national joke; even some of the director’s partisans have been slow to embrace this most Zulawskian of Zulawski’s masterpieces. Yet each of his provocations is also a dense, allusive, deeply personal work, rich in political, religious, and psychological undercurrents. Taken as a whole, the Zulawski dozen narrate not only his own autobiography—the cultural dislocation, the relationships with his leading ladies—but also the geopolitical landscape of his day, from clerical assassinations (La femme publique) to post-Communist economic upheaval (Szamanka). Long marginalized as an eccentric or a vulgarian, Zulawski is a master who is at last being taken seriously.

—Stephen Bowie, founder of

BAMcinématek presents Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski, March 7—20. Visit for complete details. Reprinted from February BAMbill.

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