La Femme Publique Review
"All you want is to imprison me, and show me that there is a huge spider inside the wardrobe as big as a man. And we will spend the rest of our lives, staring at it terrified"
Taking the autobiography of Dominique Garnier, Andrzej Zulawski conjures up a free-wheeling narrative that considers gender roles, performance, cinema and terrorism. With the notable exception of the last of these qualities, his later film bears some resemblance to his earlier L'important c'est d'aimer with that film's milieu of the theatre replaced by the shooting here of Lucas Kessling's movie. It is in Kessling himself that you would probably find the director's strongest motive for making the film - he is a creation but also an emblem of some of the supposedly revolutionary artists for whom Zulawski reserves a special contempt.
From a modern perspective, this focus on an artist whose method and beliefs support terrorism becomes a very interesting one. The quote above is from the dramatisation of Dostoevsky's The Possessed that Kessling is creating, but it acts in the story as a description of Kessling, as a political animal, a tyrannical director and a domineering lover. It is the line that Kessling's new protegee stumbles over and shows no understanding of at the film's beginning as an acting ingénue and his romantic prey, but later she will break free of his attentions and learn the truth of his political violence, and come to speak the lines with heartfelt insight. It is a line repeated throughout the film with its ridiculous overtones disappearing by the time of his protegee's victory over his domination.
As a fan of the director, La Femme Publique is a real discovery for me. I would not claim it to be as great as the film to which I compared it above, as ironically it is a good deal more theatrical than that film(it even concludes with a curtain call of sorts). However, I would claim that it contains some of the most amazing sequences that the director has filmed and a really brave one-off performance from Valerie Kaprisky. Zulawski's reputation for pushing actors to breaking point is possibly undeserved, resting as it does on the hyperbolic turns of many of his casts and the legend of Isabelle Adjani's alleged experience of Possession. It must be said that his film really goes to town on Kessling's excesses in this department of cajoling and bullying actors, but, regardless of how it was created, Kaprisky's work is stunning and the director takes her from scared blank page to dominated dependence to a final emancipation. A lot of the film's success may have been due to her plentiful nudity, yet it is her acting that allows her naked scenes in front of the photographer's lens to follow her character's arc as victim, then aggressor, and finally victor.
The film also boasts the best cinematography of the director's career. The constant meta-reference of a film within a film is underlined through composition which emphasises the technical and mechanical elements of Kessling's filming, and Zulawski switches between the two frames of reference regularly and deliberately. There is one wonderful sequence where the camera watches Kessling, the actor-director, pacing on set and its movements act in mirror to his and a sense of imminent collision is created to emphasise the man's violence and Zulawski's antipathy towards him.
The skeletal story of a young actress breaking free of a dominating mentor and the victory she scores over him sexually and politically is an intriguing premise. Yet, at times, the numerous strands of biography, literary adaptation and political message become a little over powering for all the verve, energy and imagination of the work. I would confess myself, as a leftie, rather more intrigued by the Dostoevsky scenes than the bashing of militants but you may find more of interest there if you don't share my world-view.
As before, there is an irresistible drive and passion in this work that few directors can dream of. The personal and the political unite, and the apocalyptic overtones of his other work are present again. La Femme Publique has taken me five viewings to decide truly what I think of it, and those not familiar with the director may be best off starting elsewhere in his filmography, but I can think of few films that I would find so much to justify each new screening. It is a work of incorrigible drive and impossible emotion that may seduce or repel you, you may love it or loathe it and there is no real no man's land in between. Startling, provocative and brilliant - the work of a very individual heart and soul.
Transfer and Sound
Presented in anamorphic wide-screen and in 1.66:1, this transfer involved David McKenzie, previously our hardware reviewer, and it is absolutely exceptional. Whenever writers on this site use the words "film-like" to describe what is, after all, a film, it may seem a little obvious but catch this transfer and you will understand why in watching the movie you are always thinking of cinema and never of pixels. The image is incredibly well defined with not a jot of edge enhancement or obvious boosting. Colours are superbly balanced, black levels and shadow detail are terrific, and I had to keep reminding myself I wasn't watching a blu-ray - it looks that good.
The sound comes courtesy of a crisp mono track where swells of music or dialogue are handled well, and no mastering issues really took my ear. The English subtitles come in a very good and clear white type which again seemed nigh perfect in terms of sense and grammar. Overall, this kind of A/V treatment sets very high standards for future Mondo Vision releases, standards that really only Criterion and Masters of Cinema set elsewhere.
Disc and Special Features
Rejoice for this is a region free dual layer disc, and this release comes in boxed special edition with lobby cards and original soundtrack and this gatefold edition presented in a sturdy dust sleeve. It truly is a pleasure to see such fine treatment of this director's work with excellent artwork and sympathetic extras.
The disc contains an interview between Daniel Bird and Zulawski and a commentary with the two as well. Through both Zulawski uses English and his character and passion shine through with Bird ideal as an encourager in getting him to speak at great length. On the commentary he talks about adapting the novel and working with Garnier to insert the political sub-plots and he is very indiscreet about why a theatre actor like Francis Huster is paid less than others. This superb frankness continues in the interview and he talks more about the kind of real-life artists he was trying to capture in Kessling, without mentioning names, as well as repeating comments he has made previously about women directors. Particularly interesting was his comments about admiring but not agreeing with Dostoevsky's world-view as a reason why he has kept away from making direct adaptations of his work.
The disc includes extensive picture galleries, covering French press shots, photographs and lobby art. The material on the disc is completed by a trailer.
The booklet which accompanies the disc is included within a pocket in the gatefold enclosure. The booklet includes a filmography, a synopsis, a short biography of the director translated from the French press kit, and two more short pieces on Garnier and the cinematographer Sacha Vierny also from the original kit. The centrepiece though is Daniel Bird's excellent piece on the film which discusses the relationship between the story and life(Kaprisky became as successful as her character does in the film through making it), Dostoevsky and other film adaptations(Bresson in this case), and the character of Kessling.
It's a crime that you can find this release on sale from so few retailers, Amazon certainly have it on sale from their US site and Diabolik DVD as well. This is one of the best releases of the year, a cracking film from the passionate Zulawski and a truly ambitious region free disc from Mondo Vision.