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.

No comments:

Post a Comment