Friday, July 10, 2009

Notes on SZAMANKA

In preparation for 200 words I needed to write about writer-director Andrzej Zulawski, last night I watched what is presently his penultimate feature, SZAMANKA, a French-Swiss-Polish co-production from 1996. Set in Warsaw, Poland, the film is, like much of Zulawski's work, a human story staged against a shifting political dynamic and it is also, like all of Zulawski's work, a shriek directed at the cosmos in objection to the essential incompleteness of man. His films have a reputation for being erotic, but they seldom are; they are about sex, and they are often graphic without becoming pornographic, but the sex is never satisfying for the characters or the viewers because they are meant to lay bare yearnings that can only be satisfied by our ultimate return to God. The sex in SZAMANKA ultimately takes on a religious connotation, which can be seen here in the face of actor Bogoslaw Linda, who gives a remarkable performance.

Linda plays Michal, a Polish archaeologist who meets a college student known only as "the Italian" (Iwona Petry) when his suicidal priest brother abandons his apartment. When the Italian expresses aggressive interest in taking over the lease, the archaeologist takes sexual advantage. She doesn't object but doesn't seem to like it either, until she turns to him mid-coitus with a "gotcha" smile that makes sense only as the story continues to unfold.

The two characters embark on what seems a mutually addictive, LAST TANGO-like sexual relationship within the claustrophobic apartment. One of their trysts becomes humorous in that, every time we assume it has ended, it begins again, for what seemed to me five times running, at which point the perspiring couple begin laughing themselves.

But, as in all Zulawski relationships, where there is desire, there is pain -- pain tapped by the impossibility of true spiritual connection. The Italian's emotions are played so as to seem rooted in the objectification and sexual imposition that all attractive women suffer, and though the film might sound exploitative, it paints a very bitter portrait of the indignities women endure in an exploitative culture.

But the Italian is more than she appears to be. As the story gains a sometimes baffling philosophic complexity, Michal is changed from sexual predator to the predated. (Often in Zulawski's work, the most initially repugnant characters become surprisingly sympathetic.) Here we see him literally brought to his knees by photos of details of the Italian's nude body, arranged into an icon appropriate to his new religion.

As the dialogue explains, the Italian is actually a szamanka (shaman or succubus) who, while Michal believed he was ejaculating inside of her, was in fact ejaculating "female sperm" inside of him, which has infested and taken possession of him. Consider this information only a semi-spoiler, as where their relationship finally takes them is, I think it is safe to say, astonishing.

While this bizarre love story is proceeding, Michal is having exciting times in his day job, as the ancient mummy of another shaman, male, is unearthed for the examination of his team. The shaman's body (discovered in possession of psylocybin and other antique hallucinogens) is covered in tattoo spirals and other arcane markings, and the back of his head has been shattered, ostensibly to permit the fleeing of his soul.

In a tremendous sequence, the archaeologic team appear to succumb to mass insanity as a result of exposure to the shaman's remains and undertake to revive him while getting high on his stash.

The moment when the mad team of scientists walk like Egyptians across the screen is simply one of the most impressively preposterous in Zulawski's filmography.

But greater still is the moment when -- possibly real, possibly hallucinated -- the shaman does revive and whispers words of wisdom into Michal's ear. Alas, it is too late for wisdom and the story to which the principals are doomed must play itself out, as indeed it did centuries before.
SZAMANKA (in Polish, the feminine form of "shaman") is available only as a Russian import DVD on the Premier Digital label. It is NTSC and all-region with French and Russian audio and English or Russian subtitles. (Alas, no Polish track so all the audio is dubbed -- with the Russian being dubbed over the French track in the manner of verbal subtitling.) Tony Simonelli at Xploited Cinema tells me he has only one copy left in stock, which they will not be renewing, so I would recommend that anyone interested in seeing this fascinating, mad picture should act... like yesterday.

8 comments:

  1. Great stuff Tim,
    I attempted not very succesfully to write on this film back in the early days of Moon in the Gutter. I had kind of an odd way of coming at it as my first copy that I got in the late 90s was an unsubtitled print. Since it wasn't English friendly I had no choice in those early viewings that to totally become entranced by just the film's visual aspect (which is astounding) and Iwona Petry's face (also quite mesmerizing). I'm almost grateful my first few viewings of the film was in this way as it allowed me to really collapse into Zulawski's compositions and style.

    I felt like celebrating when I got the Russian disc you mentioned and was able to finally watch the film and have a strong sense of the story. At the end of the day, I really love the work and count it as a personal favorite although I don't rank it ultimately one of Zulawski's great films (3rd Part of the Night, Importance of Love, Possession and for me Fidelity). Still, I find it to be a haunting work by one of cinema's great individuals.

    By the way, read up some if you haven't on the behind the scenes stories concerning Petry...fascinating stuff and they make her performance even more resonate...

    My first Watchblog comment! I am glad it could be on such a worthy film and post. Great stuff as always...

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  2. Derrick King11:47 PM

    Mondo Vision, who recently released Region 1 DVDs of Zulawski's La femme publique and L’important c’est d’aimer is going to release Szamanka (although no release date has been set.)

    They also plan on releasing six more of Zulawski's films: L'amour braque (I think this is their next release, but it doesn't have a release date), Trzecia Czesc Nocy, Diabel, Na Srebrnym Globie, Possession, and La Note Bleue.

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  3. I made some minor tweaks to the text of this blog entry today, based on information given to me by Facebook friend Daniel Bird.

    THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE (L'IMPORTANT C'EST D'AIMER) remains my favorite Zulawski film, a genuine masterpiece, and I recommend to WatchBlog readers that they search the blog for my earlier writing about it, since it was released on DVD this week by Mondo Vision. I hope to receive a screener soon, but have no doubt it will prove the definitive release, since the only way to watch the film, IMO, is in French (with English subtitles), which this disc is the first to offer.

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  4. Hi Tim,

    I saw this a few months ago after reading about it in the excellent 'Eyeball' book. I always found Zulawski's work to be more about the inherent failure of the dogma's and religion we know and a quest for some other form of spirituality, more often found within pagan/primal modes. Often in Zulawski's works, religion is part of a greater 'conspiracy' tied in with corrupt power states, quite similar to what goes on in Burroughs work.

    It's nice to see you championing Zulawski's work so passionately, he needs a new cannon, especially in today's really weird times where religion, politics and the slow erosion of nature's complex systems are becoming more fragile by the year.

    SPOILER ALERT : I didn't quite make out the ending, but does the Shamana eat the guys brains at the end? Do you think the guy who wrote the Hannibal Lector books was a secret Zulawski fan?

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  5. Chris Herzog9:59 AM

    What a performance by Iwona Petry! Her manic, spastic energy was really key to the film, as I often felt Zulawaki was jerking me along by the elbow as I tripped and staggered like the Italian Girl from scene to scene. We were also unprepared for the latent humor in the film and laughed riotously when she somehow obtained a job running a blast furnace.

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  6. Anthony Thorne11:38 PM

    Nice to hear that Mondo Vision are doing POSESSION, which explains the coming-and-going of the recent Blue Underground reissue (a port of the old Anchor Bay edition with a snappier cover) which was available on Amazon for something like a week. I'll have to grab those two other Zulawski titles they have out.

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  7. "THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE (L'IMPORTANT C'EST D'AIMER) remains my favorite Zulawski film, a genuine masterpiece, and I recommend to WatchBlog readers that they search the blog for my earlier writing about it, since it was released on DVD this week by Mondo Vision. I hope to receive a screener soon, but have no doubt it will prove the definitive release, since the only way to watch the film, IMO, is in French (with English subtitles), which this disc is the first to offer."

    Actually, the Spanish import featured the French track with subtitles in English and several other languages (as well as the English and Spanish dub tracks). It is an anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer (provided by Studio Canal) but the Mondo Vision has been cleaned up and has better colors.

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  8. Anonymous6:32 AM

    Glad to see a Polish film get so much attention :) Actually, in Poland this was probably one of the most reviled films ever made - critics unanimously panned it and it was seen as the absolute nadir of Zulawski's uneven career. In Poland Zulawski is seldom treated as a serious filmmaker, probably due to his enfant terrible attitude and tabloid antics overshadowing the filmmaking part.

    On the other hand, an interview with Zulawski was recently published to a very positive feedback: http://www.krytykapolityczna.pl/English/Space-of-Zulawski-/menu-id-113.html

    Marek Chojnowski

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