Friday, April 10, 2009

DVD of the Week: "Le Femme Publique" (Andrzej Zulawlski, 1984)

by Chuck Williamson

From beginning to end, Andrzej Zulawski’s Le Femme Publique (1984) bristles with an anything-goes berserker aesthetic, filled with hysterical, hyperkinetic cinematography, machine-gun bursts of elliptical editing, and frenzied performances where actors bark and bellow like wild animals barely contained by the parameters of the cinematic frame. In short, it’s absolutely bonkers, percolating with postmodern invention, wallowing in insane theatrics, filtering its male gaze through a mescaline cloud, using its simple “a star is born” conceit as the vehicle for a volatile, self-reflexive mediation on cinema and politics, performance and authenticity. Le Femme Publique might be far from perfect, but—good god!—does it ever deliver a one-two sucker-punch, rattling the senses and leaving a lasting impression.

(more after the break)

While the open-sore sexuality that punctuated much of Zulawski’s Possession (1981) has been significantly toned down, this follow-up film nonetheless resituates itself in the bedroom politics that made its director the succès de scandale of Cannes. Ethel (Valerie Kaprisky), an estranged and vacant nude model with aspirations of screen stardom, catches the attention of megalomaniacal film director Lucas Kesling (Francis Huster), who not only casts her as the primary lead in his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed but also takes her as his lover—consummating their relationship amid the din of militant Czech protestors marching outside and concluding their first liaison with the most unsettling forced tooth-brushing sequences ever committed to film. But when Ethel’s on-camera performance fizzles into discordant mess of empty line-readings and primadonna posturing, their relationship grows increasingly abusive and sadomasochistic—leading Kesling, and the audience, to presume that she is nothing more than a sexual blank slate, better off posing in the pained gyrations that make up her many erotic photoshoots. But when Ethel is booted from the picture, she is given a second chance to metamorphose into an actress. After an encounter where the two bond by chewing broken glass, Ethel doubles as the deceased wife of Milan (Lambert Wilson), an unhinged, occasionally abusive Czech immigrant who is ultimately manipulated into becoming a political assassin by a radical government cabal that may (or may not) be partially funded by Kesling.

While its nauseating misogyny and forced political subplot diminishes some of the film’s summative impact, Le Femme Publique is nonetheless an ambitious, mesmerizing, and maddening achievement that defies easy comprehension. If anything, it further cements Zulawski’s reputation as a cinematic maverick—and could, potentially, be a good entry point for those unfamiliar with his work. Like all Zulawski films, it demands close inspection and multiple viewings.


Anonymous said...

Crap...why isn't this on Netflix?! Maybe I'll bump up On the Silver Globe to make up for it.

Chuck W said...

Yeah, I should have mentioned in the review that Mondo Vision, the company that released this, has some sort of deal with Amazon that, at this moment, seems to keep it out of Netflix circulation. I'm sure this won't be the situation forever, but right now... yeah... you'll many will have to turn this into a blind buy.

But if you still want to see it, just email me. You could borrow my copy.