Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Overlooked Classics: Szamanka

It is amazing to me that the films of Andrzej Zulawski are still so hard to obtain in the United States. As of writing this only one of this great director's films is in print and that is his 1989 work My Nights are More Beautiful Than Your Days starring Sophie Marceau. His most famous film, Possession, was available in a splendid dvd from Anchor Bay that included his commentary track but that has slipped out of print.
Zulawski directed only 12 features between 1971 and 2000 but his films, from The Devil up to his final work Fidelity cast a strange haunting spell that is unlike any other filmmaker I am familiar with. His hyper kinetic camera style that alienated many viewers and critics originally is now becoming more and more commonplace among today's directors. Unfortunately very few of these directors contain Zulawski's flair for combining politics, sexuality and the supernatural. Michael Winterbottom is one of the only current filmmakers who possesses Zulawski's ability to bring multi-layered aspects to the doomed obsessive relationships that they have both filmed. Zulawski's films might be more operatic in style than Winterbottoms, but it's easy to imagine 9 Songs as something Zulawski might have filmed early on if he could have gotten away with it.
Zulawski has famously brought out the most extreme aspects of certain actress such as Romy Schneider, Isabelle Adjani and most importantly his partner of many years, Sophie Marceau. Marceau appeared, or survived, more of Zulawski's films than anyone else and I will write in more detail on this later. Specifically their last film they made together, and the final film Zulawski has directed, 2000's Fidelity is one of the major works of this decade.
While Possession will undoubtedly remain the most famous film Zulawski ever lensed, The Most Important Thing Love might be the greatest. It is his penultimate film Szamanka from 1996 that is his most mysterious and perhaps the ultimate example of his his extreme cinema.
I first saw Szamanka on a Polish video that I got from Craig Ledbetter's European Trash Cinema in the late 90s. It was in Polish without English subtitles so an already hard story to follow was made all the more difficult. Its images kept coming back to me and I watched it several times over the next couple of years. I found myself occasionally just putting it in and having it playing in the background while I was doing something else, that's something I never do but the film seemed to issue some sort of strange alchemical affect.
Within the past couple of years a Russian DVD company re-issued the film with English subtitles and it was a pleasure and slightly bewildering experience to revisit it in this manner. I suppose not having just the image to concentrate on should have taken some of its mystery away, but I found just the opposite to be true.
The plot, as it is, basically details a professor who discovers, and becomes obsessed with, an ancient mummy. At the same time he meets a young disturbed student who he begins a turbulent affair with. The film makes obvious references to Last Tango In Paris in spots, but it shares more subversive qualities with Anger's Lucifer Rising.
Zulawski seems incapable of making a film that isn't political by it's very nature and the mummy does seem to represent the not long dormant communist government that he struggled with early in his career. It's important to note that Szamanka represented a return to Poland for Zulawski, and the film was a notorious failure upon release. It's an angry film where Zulkawski is really letting his obsessions fly, the brutal sexuality and tribalistic moments have a choreographed quality that harken back to Zulawski's early stage work.
The film borders on hysteria for its full 110 minute running time. It never lets up and it is a pretty exhausting experience. Zulawski's characters often exhibit traits of almost seizure like episodes, as if their surroundings and lives are literally freezing them up. Szamanka takes this to the extreme by presenting the student as someone who seems completely out of touch with her surroundings. From her contorted grins to either moving just too fast or just too slow she is literally always just out of step. The only time she seems almost in line with her surroundings is during the films powerful loves scenes, it recalls the idea, that under a fascist government, that it was sex that could provide a taste of freedom.
Zulawski's major films, without exception, would fall apart if it wasn't for his lead actresses. His taste and intuition have had to be impeccable when it comes to his choices, and his ability to draw such extreme performances out of distinguished performers like an Adjani or Marceau is laudable. Szamanka is no different in this respect, but Zulawksi would get as far away from casting an established lead as he could with this film.
Iwona Petry is one of those astonishing one hit wonders of modern cinema. Discovered in a Warsaw coffee shop at the age of 20 by Zulawski she delivers an extraordinary off the hook performance as the unnamed student. I would argue that her performance in this is as good as any in Zulawski's canon. Only Sophie Marceau, Isabelle Adjani and Romy Schneider would deliver more fully realized performances for him.
Petry's performance and life is one of the main things that has given this film such a notoriety. Virtually disappearing after making the film amidst rumors stating everything from being physically abused by Zulawski during the shoot to being hypnotized. Some Polish papers even reported that she had killed herself after filming completed, in actuality she did drop out and travelled across the world. She eventually settled back in Poland as a student and even published a well received collection of stories in the past couple of years. Outside of a small television role Szamanka remains her only performance before a camera, but what a performance.
Zulawski's role as one of the great world directors of the past 30 years is hidden from most film buffs. His films are as unique as any directors and are deserving of a major re-appraisal. They might be too artsy for genre fans and too extreme for art house followers but film lovers with an open mind should embrace him as one of the true visionaries of modern cinema. Szamanka, while remaining perhaps his most extreme vision, is among the easiest to find. Import copies regularly turn up on Amazon and ebay or head over to the great Xploited Cinema and order a new copy from Tony. I promise 20 of the most unforgettable dollars you can ever spend.

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