Monday, December 30, 2013

Diabel (1972)

Communist Poland in the 1970’s wasn’t exactly the most welcoming place for artist who’s work tended to be on the more “provocative” side of things so its really no surprise that of out of the 12 feature films directed by Andrzej Zulawski, only 4 were shot in his homeland with Zulawski opting to work in France for the majority of his cinematic career. For the most part, the political allegories present in Zulawski’s debut feature The Third Part of the Night (1971) passed by the censors but he wouldn’t be so lucky with subsequent films. At this point the unfortunate fate of The Silver Globe (1977/87) should be common knowledge, with the films production being shut down and various materials destroyed resulting in Zulawski leaving Poland for France again, although he would eventually finish the film 10 years later. By the time Zulawski returned to Poland with Szamanka (1996), the country was no longer under Communist rule but nonetheless the reaction to the film was nothing short of scandalous. Then there’s 1972’s Diabel. Diabel was Zulawski’s second feature and in a lot of way its the film where Zulawski really “became” Zulawski if that makes any sense. Within minutes of viewing the film its clear that this was a man with something to say, and say it loudly and as a result Diabel stands as one of Zulawski’s most intense and confrontational films.

During the invasion of Poland by the Prussian army in 1793, a mysterious, nameless stranger rescues Jacob, a political prisoner sentenced for an assassination attempt on the King from a convent turned jail. The stranger pleads with Jacob to return home, and sends him on his way along with a nun for company, however when Jacob arrives back home he discovers, much to his horror, that everything he had known prior to his arrest has drastically changed, with the discovery of his previous fiancés pregnancy and marriage to his former best friend as well as the death of his father during his imprisonment. Unable to come to terms with the chaos his life has descended into, Jacob’s sanity slowing begins to deteriorate while all the while being sporadically visited by the stranger who released him.

The best possible way to try and describe the experience of watching a film like Diabel (The Devil) would be that it could be viewed from the most comfortable and warmest setting imaginable yet for the films 2 hour duration no warmth and comfort would be found, which would be the appropriate feeling as the world represented by Zulawski in Diabel is one where all familiarity, comfort and humanity have been forcibly removed and replaced with confusion and lunacy, and a spastic and energetic lunacy at that. This may have only been Zulawski’s second feature but already several of his signatures are established, the most obvious being the manic performances but also Zulawski’s frantic, oftentimes handheld camerawork which results in the viewer becoming as disoriented as Jacob, and the aforementioned cold feeling of the film is amplified by the films taking place during the bitter Polish winter. At this point its well known that while the storyline of the film may have been dealing with 18th century politics, in actuality Zulawski was making a fierce modern (“modern” for 1972 anyway) political statement, venting his rage at the Communist secret police in Poland at the time taking advantage of the impressionable Polish youth. Zulawski would later explore similar themes in films such as La Femme Publique (1984) and L’amour Braque (1985) but Diabel remains his most vicious condemnation of such groups and the extreme tone of the film is not unlike the fear and confusion felt by many during times of intense political unrest.      
Polart DVD

Despite the fact that Zulawski made the film, as he put it, “into the style of 18th-century costume and masks”, ultimately the Polish authorities saw thought it and the film was instantly banned and it wasn’t until 16 years later in 1988 when the film finally saw a release. Mondo Vision, the company responsible for brilliant DVD releases of Zulawski’s L’important C’est D’aimer (1975), La Femme Publique, L’amour Braque and Szamanka have Diabel listed as a future release on their website along with several other Zulawski films such as The Third Part of the Night, The Silver Globe, Possession (1981), Boris Godunov (1989) and La Note Bleue (1992). Until that release sees the light of day the easiest way to see the film would be to pick up the Polart DVD under the film’s English title The Devil. Polart also released a disc of The Silver Globe. Like the majority of Zulawski’s films, Diabel is obviously not for everyone. Its a film that has the potential to scare away just as many, if not more viewers that will end up appreciating Zulawski’s twisted vision yet at the same time its an absolutely essential film to recommend to those interested in Zulawski as virtually all of the man’s calling cards are on display. Diabel remains one of Zulawski’s most potent cinematic statements as well as being unlike anything else in 70’s European transgressive cinema.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Szamanka (1996)

In March 2012 the Brooklyn Academy of Music ran a complete retrospective showcasing  the films of Andrzej Zulawski under the banner of “Hysterical Excess”, something which the man himself took issue with. When asked about the title in an interview Zulawski’s response was “This is the exact reason I am here in Warsaw and not in New York. I hated it so profoundly, it sounded so base… On the other hand, I understand that these nice good people want to have something catchy. But I’m totally, totally aghast. I’m against this, and this is the reason I never came.” For the longest time “Hysterical” has been the go to term for many when attempting to describe Zulawski’s work and while its understandable to a point, perhaps “emotional” would be a more appropriate term, as the majority, if not all of Zulawski’s films are intensely emotional experiences, films such as Diabel (1972), Possession (1981) and La Femme Publique (1984) amongst many others feature characters experiencing basically every conceivable human emotion possible, oftentimes several at once. “Hysteria” is simply one out of many on display. 1996’s Szamanka, to date Zulawski’s second to last film and his 4th overall Polish film is a prime example of Zulawski’s emotional filmmaking. Almost instantly notorious in Poland upon it’s release, Szamanka is certainly a stand out film and although some purists may disagree, one of Zulawski’s best films.

Immediately after his priest brother hastily vacates his apartment, Michal (Boguslaw Linda), an anthropology professor is approached by an overly enthusiastic engineering student known only as “The Italian” (Iwona Petry) about renting the place. While showing her around the apartment Michal rapes her, although it eventually becomes consensual and the two begin a fierce sexual relationship. Michal and his anthropology team have just unearthed the preserved body of a 2,000 year old shaman, and Michal is determined to discover the cause of the shaman’s death. The deeper Michal goes into his research, the more and more intense his relationship with The Italian becomes and his world quickly becomes dominated by two obsessions, the mystery of the shaman and the equally mysterious Italian.

It would be very difficult to confuse Szamanka (“She-Shaman”) with the work of any other filmmaker as Szamanka is very much a 100% Zulawski experience, so much so it has led some to label the film as a self parody complete with manic performances and themes dealing with the spiritual and sexual, oftentimes combining the two. Like the majority of Zulawki’s films Szamanka refuses to be pigeonholed into one genre or another, running the gamut from demented psychosexual drama to surreal esoteric elements, so to speak, later on in the film that could be described at best as transgressive horror, and there are also moments in the film which are quite comedic in their absurdity. To those unfamiliar with Zulawski’s work the film will probably come across as incoherent madness but as any Zulawski fan will attest to, there is something much more going on, something profound, which goes back to Zulawski being an emotional filmmaker. Despite the odd behavior of his characters, Zulawski has an odd way of never alienating the audiences (the select audience Zulawski’s films “work” for that is) in fact the opposite is true which is especially the case with Szamanka. The further forward the film moves and the more bizarre Michal and The Italian become the more engaging they become. Of course along with the relationship between Michal and The Italian is relationship between Michal and the dead shaman and the way Zulawski effectively blends the two is brilliant especially as the film moves further into hallucinogenic territory.
Andrzej Korzynski's amazing soundtrack which is included in
Mondo Vision's box set of the film.

Even with the long list of previous eccentric Zulawski heroines that came before her, Iwona Petry in the role of The Italian is still one of the most unhinged and perplexing characters in Zulawski’s filmography. The most obvious comparison would be Isabelle Adjani’s Anna from Possession but the case could be made that The Italian also shares some similarities with Valerie Kaprisky’s Ethel from La Femme Publique. Petry was the perfect choice to play The Italian particularly because she was an unknown at the time, something which only fueled the already enigmatic Italian so wonderfully written by the films screenwriter Manuela Gretkowska. The Italian also happens to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the Zulawski canon and as the relationship between her and Michal progresses, her way of conducting herself actually becomes justified in a strange way. Of course the performance of  Boguslaw Linda cannot be understated and he is equally brilliant in the role of Michal but ultimately this is really Petry’s show. Perhaps Michal and The Italian’s relationship is best expressed not by the actors themselves but by the films two reoccurring musical motives courtesy of longtime Zulawski collaborator Andrzej Korzynski, pounding, tribal-esque drums mixed with electric guitars for the sex scenes and tender strings reserved for the scenes involving the dead shaman. Its important to note that originally Zulawski had intended to use the strings for the sex scenes and the drums for the shaman until deciding it would have been inappropriate and the results speak for themselves.

When Szamanka was released in Poland the response was less than welcoming especially from the Catholic church. During the interview on Mondo Vision’s must have DVD release of the film Zulawski recalls a humorous instance of a priest in one Polish village standing outside a theatre and trying to physically stop people from seeing the film and in certain parts of the country the film could only be shown during late night screenings. The film also faced some hostile criticism for its treatment of anthropology, something which is taken very seriously in Poland. Then of course there was the controversy surrounding lead actress Iwona Petry with rumors quickly spreading about Zulawski’s alleged mistreatment of her on the set, of her needing to be committed to an asylum, things of that nature. According to Petry herself, the majority of those rumors were just that, tabloid fodder, although she didn’t deny that the shoot was an intense experience. After Szamanka she basically did a disappearing act, traveling abroad and going to school until making a brief public re-appearance in 2004 with the publication of Gabinet żółcieni, a book of short stories which Zulawski actually helped out with. Szamanka remains her only appearance in a feature film which is a shame as its an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary, absolutely essential Zulawski film featuring all the trademarks from one of cinema’s most original and confrontational auteurs.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Paradine Case (1947)

On one hand its kind of incredible to think that one of the biggest partnerships in cinematic history, that of producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock only produced three films, Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945) and 1947’s The Paradine Case. Notorious (1946) began life as a Selznick production but Selznick later lost interest and eventually sold the film to RKO Pictures but in typical Selznick fashion took a percentage of the profits and still tried to change the script to his liking. On the other hand, knowing the history between Hitchcock and Selznick its easy to see why they only made three films together. The relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick was quite a complicated one. Many experts have said over the years that while Hitchcock respected Selznick, he found his constant meddling and interference, something which Selznick was infamous for, insufferable and the production of The Paradine Case which would become the very last Hitchcock film produced by Selznick was no different with Selznick re-writing the entire script, the first draft of which was written by Hitchcock himself along with his wife Alma Reville. Considering the legacy of Hitchcock and Selznick, its rather puzzling that the last film to come out of the seven year contract between the two is one of Hitchcock’s lesser known, almost forgotten films and its really a shame as The Paradine Case is a real hidden gem.

Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, billed here simply as “Valli”), the wealthy foreign wife of a retired Colonel is arrested on chargers of poisoning her elderly blind husband to death. Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck), a highly successful barrister is hired as her defense attorney, although the case becomes complicated rather quickly as the happily married Keane begins to fall hopelessly in love with Mrs. Paradine, endangering not only his professional reputation but his marriage of 11 years to his wife Gay (Ann Todd) and as the case moves closer to trial Keane’s professional attitude towards the case gradually becomes overshadowed by his personal feelings for Mrs. Paradine.

Unquestionably the most low key of not just Hitchcock’s Selznick produced films but all the films of his Hollywood era, The Paradine Case might appear somewhat atypical at first to more casual fans who may only be aware of the bigger names in Hitchcock’s filmography but several of Hitchcock’s trademarks are quickly revealed. The go to term to describe the film seems to be “courtroom drama”, not an inaccurate classification yet to label the film simply as a courtroom drama would be selling the film short. The majority of the film plays out like a study of a key Hitchcock motif, obsession. While Hitchcock might not take the idea into territories he would in a film like Vertigo (1958), The Paradine Case is nonetheless one of Hitchcock’s darkest films on that front the way it presents Keane’s growing infatuation with Mrs. Paradine to the point where both his professional and personal reputations are put on the line. Of course the mystery surrounding the murder of Mrs. Paradine’s husband and whether or not she is guilty is always hovering over the films psychological proceedings always balancing each other out nicely and the two finally come to a head when the film finally does enter the courtroom. What Hitchcock does so brilliantly during the courtroom scenes is allow the mystery angle to come to the forefront which in turn allows Keane’s fixation on Mrs. Paradine to boil over and the results are unbearably tense, edge of the seat material that only Hitchcock could have crafted.

Detractors of the film claim that Gregory Peck was miscast, that Peck was just too likable and that because of that the film doesn’t work as it isn’t at all plausible that the successful lawyer with a loving wife would fall for a woman such as Mrs. Paradine. Really an odd criticism as its exactly why the film does work! Keane IS a likable man and Hitchcock was wise to include scenes of him and Ann Todd early on as the seemingly perfect happy go lucky married couple as they make Kean‘s attraction to Mrs. Paradine more impactful. There are times when Peck’s performance is downright uncomfortable, namely the sequence of Keane entering Mrs. Paradine’s bedroom while exploring the Paradine’s country home seeking out evidence for the case. Alida Valli, perhaps best known to genre fans for her role as the imposing dance instructor Mrs. Tanner in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) was a wise choice for the role of Mrs. Paradine. Valli possesses a presence that is striking as it is mysteriously alluring, made even more so the way Hitchcock photographs her. There is an undeniable femme fatale quality to her, yet there is also a certain ambiguity which was crucial to the part. Stealing the show however is Louis Jordan who enters in the second half of the film and who’s character adds an whole new dynamic to the story. Jordan absolutely owns the courtroom scenes, his back and forth’s with Peck make those moments in the film all the more intense.

The Paradine Case also sticks out on account of being one of Hitchcock’s most expensive films for a variety of reasons. The biggest being the sets for the trial sequences had to be custom built in order to not only accurately replicate the look of an English courtroom but also so Hitchcock could shoot a certain way. From a technical standpoint the scenes in the courtroom could be seen as somewhat of a precursor to Hitchcock’s follow up to The Paradine Case, Rope (1948) due to the constant long takes and Hitchcock would also later masterfully create highly dramatic suspense via a courtroom in I Confess (1953), another one of Hitchcock’s most underappreciated films. Naturally Selznick’s trademark interference didn’t do the films budget any favors with his insistence on multiple re-shoots. Another interesting and rather humorous tidbit about the film was Selznick’s inability to settle on a title for the film having several titles, many absurd in mind before finally settling on “The Paradine Case” (the same name of the book on which the film is based by the way) literally at the 11th hour right before the film was sent out to its world premier. The Paradine Case might not have the same status as Rebecca or Spellbound, the previous two films Hitchcock/Selznick films, but it is ultimately an important film and is a film that’s more than worthy of a rediscovery.