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I shall tell of another adventure that is all the more strange...” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

A film by Andrzej Zulawski Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A film by Andrzej Zulawski
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

This sentence was more or less lost in a late 1960’s translation of Kosmos. Sadly it would be that sentence that served not only as my introduction to a novel but to the Polish writer. Memory is a funny thing. While I forgotten most of the novel, it is that first sentence that stayed forever branded into my mind. I decided I needed to revisit  When I learned that Andrzej Zulawski was about to shoot a film adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s Kosmos, I decided to refresh my memory beyond a single sentence. I expected to be confused as I did remember it had been clunky regarding translation. I was excited to discover that the novel that had been warded the 1967 Prix Formentor Award for literature had been re-translated from Polish into English. Yale University Press published Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Gombrowicz since I had last thought of it.

Kosmos Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Kosmos
Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Witold Gombrowicz has always interested me. While he was a fiction writer he is equally known as a diarist. Where does his fiction merge into his reality and experience? How does the English reader know he/she is able to understand his prose’s complexity? German and French readers had better access to his work thanks to more accurate translations. My introduction to his work came with an understanding that he had to firmly defend his most popular work, Ferdydurke, from critics who felt it was satire. Satire had not been Gombrowicz’s purpose. His novels are known for exploring issues of identity and existentialism under the pressures of Nationalism and fast social change. But these explorations were made with a sense absurdity that tied closely to dark humor.

His characters are not fully developed. Their identities are fragmented by the repression, oppression and tyranny imposed by both culture and society. These characters roam about trying to formulate understanding of self/life under the strain and disturbing acts that forever alter the circumstances of being. And while there is a grim level of pessimism that leans against established institutional rule — Gombrowicz disagreed that his work was connected with nihilism, but the darkness is most definitely waiting.

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz's often mistranslated "Kosmos" is resurrected through another lens. Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz’s often mistranslated “Kosmos” is resurrected through another lens.
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Revolutions, wars, cataclysms — what does this foam mean when compared to the fundamental horror of existence? …My literature must remain that which it is. Especially that something which does not fit into politics and does not want to serve it. I cultivate just one politics: my own. I am a separate state.” — Witold Gombrowicz, Diary. Published 1988.

The improved translation helped me in understanding that much of my frustration was something Gombrowicz intended. The characters navigating within his Kosmos are never fully fleshed out. We know that our protagonist, Witold  has trouble waiting to crush him back in Warsaw. We also know that Fuks hates his boss. But we never know what the trouble is or why the boss is hated. In fact we are given limited information about every character. The novel’s extremes and paranoias begin to feed the reader’s imagination. Every action and decision seems to be a reaction to matters we can never fully understand. This vastly improved translation offers more insight into Gombrowicz’s complexity but it also grants permission to not second-guess the awkward phrasing.

The new English translation for Kosmos provides an entirely different read. In the novel two young men seek refuge from the pressures and hardships they experience in Warsaw. They escape the city to what they anticipate will be the nourishing warmth of the country, but they arrive with mutual respective existential crisis and life fatigue. They will soon face a series of random incidents that begin to shift Wiltold further into paranoia, existential crisis as he feels threatened. Gombrowicz brings humor into the equation. Paranoias, fears and angst begin to leap off the charts of rationality. The characters magnify the situations and incidents. They soon feels less coincidental and can be assumed to be intended threats. Witold is unable to consider these incidents as “random.” The unexpected chaos signals pending doom.  His ideas of existence and identity are as fragile as they are extreme.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'the pretty' with 'the good.'" Jonathan Genet Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘the pretty’ with ‘the good.'”
Jonathan Genet
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Isn’t it true? I thought, that one is almost never present, or rather never fully present, and that’s because we have only a halfhearted, chaotic and slipshod, disgraceful and vile relationship with our surroundings.” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Boris Neleop interviewed Zulawski after Cosmos had received its world premiere at Locarno International Film Festival receiving the Best Director honor. Neleop discussed the difficulty of finding accurate translations of Kosmos. The director agreed and pointed out that the film was based from the novel’s original Polish language.

Luckily, I’m Polish so I can read it. More luckily still, words like “bleurgh” in Gombrowicz mean nothing. What is it? Alban Berg, the composer? A cliff maybe? But in French it means the retching sound—bleurgh. Meaning you want to vomit. If you see a bad movie and someone asks you how it was, that’s what you say: bleurgh. So, it’s a happy coincidence.

Neleop attempted to engage the artist into a discussion regarding what he perceived to be a shared sort of spasmodic manner in both Gombrowicz’s novel and the great filmmaker’s work. Zulawski disagreed with the connection and seemed intent on avoiding the spasmodic with either work.

I don’t agree with you. I don’t think Gombrowicz is spasmodic: he’s quick, he’s rapid, he’s short and extremely rhythmic and… Do you know the word “caustic”? His writing is never hysterical. It’s caustic. It’s galloping but dry. I don’t think the actors are spasmodic at all. They are in their own delirium, but for them this delirium always has a profound logic. It’s not a bunch of mad men in an asylum. They are petit bourgeois. Witold wants to write a novel until he falls in love with this girl, who never has anything intelligent to say. His relationship with his young friend is really close, almost homosexual. So, it’s a complicated little cosmos.”

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014 Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014
Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

In answering a question regarding his decision to lift the novel out of its pre-war Polish context and moving it to 21st Century Portugal where a group of French people are living, Zulawski responded:

If Cosmos had been filmed according to the novel, it would’ve been a very depressing and ugly film. Why the hell should I see those terrible people? Sounds like a basically stupid question. It’s not. It’s like life. Why should I spend my life with ugly stupid petit bourgeois people? I won’t. I won’t spend my life in Hollywood either. I don’t like these people, I don’t like their stories. So it leaves you to stay alone for fifteen years. In my forest.”

Zulawski’s rejection of cinematic norms is nothing new, but after he made La fidélité he retreated. That film was released in 2000. He never retreated into a forest of seclusion, but it would be fifteen years before he made Cosmos. His return to cinema was not a safe one. Adapting a complex work like the Polish novel, Kosmos, was never going to be an easy cinematic proposition. And while his final film does articulate itself with some newly discovered levity, Cosmos has a great deal in common with some of his key works.

"Love me." Romy Schneider That Most Important Thing / L'important c'est d'aimer Andrzej Zulawski, 1975 Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

“Love me.”
Romy Schneider
That Most Important Thing / L’important c’est d’aimer
Andrzej Zulawski, 1975
Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

This film’s title is actually translated as The Most Important Thing is Love and Romy Schneider’s performance would have been enough to secure the film’s place in French film history. But there is far more continued within the frames than an iconic actor’s work. The film marked a new turn in filmmaking. Zulawski’s examination of the artist finding fulfillment in France’s mid-1970’s theatre scene leaves a mark. It is not so much the point of the movie that matters but they way in which that point flows off the screen. Visceral, angry, obsessive, compulsive and often frantic — L’important c’est d’aimer takes the concept of a tragic love story to poetic heights. The film’s fever-pitched passion and energy haunt the viewer long after the film ends. A contemplation regarding abysmal cinematic opportunities, the protagonist is often looking directly into the audience. While the film is realism it wants to push itself off the screen, into the theatre and run rampant. The characters Zulawski presents are not really all that odd, but the way in which they move, speak and propel is most assuredly eccentric.

"It doesn't hurt." Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance... Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“It doesn’t hurt.”
Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani gave Zulawski the performance of a lifetime in one of the most confounding films of all time. No one was prepared for 1981’s Possession. Adjani’s work on this film was so taxing that it triggered a very real emotional break. It only takes one viewing to underscore this as valid truth. Adjani was dancing on a high wire without a net. Zulawski was able to inspire her to start her performance with emotional hysteria set at Level 5 and then required her to turn it up to Level 21 before the experimental film comes to a crashing end. It is a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Possession remains a testament to the talents of both the leading actor and its creator.

There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s 1981 film. At its most obvious level it is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to turmoils of the psycho-sexual. And, from another perspective, it is a metaphorical depiction of divorce. And it is a matrimonial breakup that takes on apocalyptic proportions. Possession is completely unique, surreal and metaphorical study of identity it extreme crisis. And it is fueled by an inhuman and intolerable repression of control. This control might be that of a stifling marriage or one propelled by government control. Or it could be a combination of both. It doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession — it works from any vantage point.

The passage of time has not dulled its sharp edges. The special effects and gore are still jaw-dropping. This is an Art Film that has become Cult and it continues to spark provocative reaction. It took decades for this very personal film to find its audience. There are several different versions of Possession floating around — all the result of censorship. Mondo Vision beautifully restored this film several years back. It is an essential film for any fans of Surrealism and Horror.

"Are you lost?" Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love. L'amour braque / Mad Love Andrzej Zulawski, 1985 Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

“Are you lost?”
Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love.
L’amour braque / Mad Love
Andrzej Zulawski, 1985
Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

Andrzej Zulawski’s adapts Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in a neon-drenched fever dream. 1985’s L’amour brace’s characters, sets, cinematography, editing and acting indicate that we might have landed in some alternate world. The film moves as if it was pulsating forward via an amphetamine, cocaine and whiskey fueled injection of psychotic convulsions. Zulawski’s experimental film is a twisted Neon and most certainly avant-garde. The film is violent, but the violence never feels “real” and the graphic sexuality is presented in paradoxically restrained ways. The only time the film seems to be able to slow down is when Sophie Marceau and The Idiot consummate to a point of erotic “enjoyment” — And, even then, it almost feels like the camera is so jacked-up it can barely wait to continue it’s frenzied trajectory.

Easily one of the most stylistically influential films to ever come out of French cinema — Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan among them. And it had an impact on music videos of the day. This world of thieves, addicts, artists, whores, drug dealers, pimps, terrorists, anarchists, perverts and lovers is chaotic but somehow organized. Mutually-conflicted screeching rants, dances and terrorism form into a sort of dancing race against time. Zulawski seems to be inspecting everything from political activism, perversion, addiction, insanity, rage, the theatre, criminal motivation, rebellion, sex and love — but through a camera that is dependent on hallucinogenics for vision. Like PossessionL’amour braque is completely unique unto itself. It is safe to state that no other filmmaker will manage to make a movie remotely like these two.

"That's why there are common saints. God's morons with a soul but empty brains." Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity... Szamanka / She-Shaman Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

“That’s why there are common saints. God’s morons with a soul but empty brains.”
Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity…
Szamanka / She-Shaman
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland for 1996’s SzamankaShe-Shaman. Filmed in the newly freed Poland, the director brought the level of intense sexual obsession beyond expectation. It earned the nickname The Last Tango in Warsaw. While it is true that this film pushes further with graphic sexuality, it is seldom actually erotic. Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry push themselves to the extremes that are defined within the script. This might very well be the most challenging of Zulawski’s work. The cinematic provocation is not within the frantic obsessive actions and sheer frenzy, but lies far deeper within the film’s political and philosophical context. The two protagonists pursue their sexual and existential needs toward a deeply nihilistic end. Szmanka aches toward a brilliance that is almost impossible to endure.  Inexperienced actress, Iwona Petry, is near brilliant in her role, but she opted to end her acting career after Szamanka‘s release. Another interesting example of an artist agreeing to join the director on his journey but emotionally exhausted to the point of breaking once arriving at the destination.

Capturing "reality" in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame. Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory La fidélité / Fidelity Andrzej Zulawski, 2000 Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Capturing “reality” in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame.
Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory
La fidélité / Fidelity
Andrzej Zulawski, 2000
Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Zulawski’s La fidelity / Fidelity was released in 2000. The film’s plot is more conventional, but once again his characters burn with almost convulsive urgency. This film forges a path that left many viewers cold. Its highlight is Zulawski”s great love and former muse, Sophie Marceau. She is brilliant in the role and her director understands how to capture not only her beauty but her energy. Years later I remember thinking that it seemed a pale sort of entry to serve as this filmmaker’s final work. Luckily it wasn’t.

Available from Mondo Vision La femme publique Andrzej Zulawski, 1984 Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Available from Mondo Vision
La femme publique
Andrzej Zulawski, 1984
Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

My admiration for Andrzej Zulawski runs deep and it is based within the realm of the personal. He was a brilliant artist who refused to be repressed, suppressed or held to any strict rule when it came to his art. And despite what some have attempted to insinuate, Zulawski was an admirable and kind person. His heart and passion shine through all of his films. Zulawski was always reaching into, under, over and well above the human need for love and understanding.

Even within the bleakness of Possession and Szamanka beats the heart of a very human filmmaker. I’ve decided not to touch on Diabel, La femme publique or On the Silver Globe  — these three films are unique masterworks that I am unable to address in a short blog. I will note that these three films are not really the best starting points for a Andrzej Zulawski neophyte, but then again — maybe they exceptional places in which to take that first plunge.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Boris Neleop’s attempt to engage Zulawski in a conversation about “spasmodic” characters is valid. Nearly all of Zulawski’s characters are extreme. While everything around them might be pushing inward to restrict / oppress — his characters refused to stay within the bounds of circumstances had designed. The need for knowledge, satisfaction, love and understanding leave them no choice other than to be extreme.

This auteur was always a bit sensitive when pressed to discuss the hyper energy or over-the-top passion found in his films. A word like “spasmodic” would make Mr. Zulawski recoil. He shut this sort of commentary so far out of his mind that consideration was no loner possible.

Mr.Neleop is correct: Witold Gombrowicz’s characters are a bit, well, spasmodic. And I suspect that it was their very nature that attracted the great director.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Zulawski had grown up with Gombrowicz’s literary work. My initial knee-jerk reaction toward Zulawski adapting Gombrowicz was that these two thinkers formulated thought in direct opposition to the other. I do not think Gombrowicz liked people. He thought and wrote about the existential, but these pursuits seemed formed from an essential repulsion toward humanity. This is interesting because his fiction is more than a little autobiographical. The way in which Gombrowicz creates the characters of his Kosmos is not kind. Zulawski’s entire film career was focused on the darker aspects of human nature — yet he loved people. He was a fighter and a rebel, but he was never anti-social. And he most certainly was not a pessimist. And, unlike Gombrowicz, he was not vain or concerned when it came to criticism or reward.

decorating lips. Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

She paints her lips as if with blood because she really wants to be an actress…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

I’m scared of the forests. In the midway of this mortal life I found myself in a gloomy world, astray. Gone from the path and even to tell, that forest, how robust its growth, which to remember only, my dismay. Renews in bitterness not far from death. All else will I relate discovered there.

Witold is frantically walking through the edge of a forest. Jonathan Genet has the look of someone from another era, but we already know that Zulawski’s Witold is a 21st century character. At first glance he could be a European fashion model, but his behavior is based within panic. He seems to be consistently on the verge of a mental break. When we meet Zulawski’s Fuchs, played by Johan Liberia, we discover they have traveled in a nice car. Fuchs’ name has been altered in spelling but he is still trying to escape the tyranny of two horrible bosses. In this new universe we know that his employers are high-end fashion designers.

While Wiltold is fragile and paranoid, Fuchs is robust and seemingly up for just about anything. Both behave in ways that lean toward the aberrant. Wiltold wants only to study, but he detests what he studies. Fuchs is primally focused on off screen violent sexual conquests. He reassures his friend that he plays safe, but bleeding wounds, bruises and other bodily issues are scars to his masochistic tendencies. And while it is never fully stated, these two friends would appear to share a bond that goes further than brotherly love. There are hints of a mutual sexual attraction and romantic fondness.

Something sinister is going on! Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Something sinister is going on!
Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Here, in Zulawski’s Cosmos, the two friends have run from France to Portugal. Fuchs is more lighthearted but still aches. Witold’s neurotic need to examine every move / object under his philosopher’s magnifying glass fractures his grasp of reality. The first thing Wiltold experiences after he secures his navigational balance is an encounter with a forest. It is one of the aspects of the world he hates most. As he rushes through the wilds of this forest he encounters the first of many grotesque encounters — a dead sparrow dangling from a string laced noose.

Soon he will discover ghost-like stains upon his rented room’s ceiling. These stains seem to be point toward something.

Fuchs also notices but is more curious than repulsed. The shape of a rake appears in the stain — and soon they discover an actual rake that directs their gaze upward to two small planks of wood hanging from a tree. The planks are tied together and hang by the same string from which the sparrow hangs. They hear talk of a chicken that was spotted hanging not too far away, but they never see it. And thus Wiltold and Fuchs begin to play a paranoid sort of game to attach meaning to these seemingly random signs. The game leads to an axe, a hammer, murder, death and metaphysical omens.

Madame is just overexcited... Sabine Azema Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Madame is just overexcited…
Sabine Azema
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A murdered cat hangs in the courtyard of the Bed and Breakfast. An eccentric married couple have been renting two of their rooms to keep up with mounting expenses. The wife, called Roly-Poly in the Polish novel, is played with goofy  nervous energy by the ever stylish Sabine Azema. We never hear her referred to with the novel’s cruel nickname. Here she is known as Madame Woytis. We soon notice that the female head of the house has a tendency to abruptly shut off in mid speak / movement. Frozen like a photograph. Her beautiful daughter explains, “Oh, it happens to her when ever she gets overexcited.

The daughter is Lena who is married to a seemingly successful business man. He seems to be in constant meetings with a mysterious Russian client. Wiltold is immediately vexed by Lena. But it is her niece, Catherette, with whom he is smitten. Catherette has taken the position of housekeeper. She is devoted but worries her aunt, Madame Woytis, because she refuses to have her mutilated lip cosmetically re-defined. We are told she was in a bus crash. But her mutilation looks more biological in origin. Her lip holds an entrancing mix of disgust and erotic curiosity for both Wiltold and Fuchs.  The male head of the home is Lena‘s stepfather, Leon, played with unhinged lunacy by Jean-Francois Balmer.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'The Pretty' with 'The Good.'" Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘The Pretty’ with ‘The Good.'”
Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Interactions with the family are beyond eccentric. This is a house of organized lunacy and chaos. When Wiltold meets Lena they shake hands maniacally and for an extended time. Soon they are “secretly” copying each other’s animated hand movements. But their odd flirtation is painfully over-the-top. Yet everyone around them is too preoccupied with their own strange non-senscial conversations that only Fuchs notices. The antics of this family appear and sound like something one would see in a  slapstick comedy. There is only one catch: none of it is funny. It is simply strange.  

Unlike Gombrowicz, Zulawski has no interest in making us laugh. He aims to throw his audience off balance. As frantic action and illogical dialogues ape the gestures/sounds of Keystone Cops — the film quickly forms into absurd surrealism. And yet, the film’s cinematography and musical score tease that we are watching some fucked-up romantic mystery. And these are romances and mysteries that seem unsolvable.

As omens of sinister consequence begin to mount the two visitors only become more confused. Wiltold takes a worrying turn when he starts to adapt to sinister cruelty. Ants roam through their food, slugs slither in butter, creepy beetles crawl out of Madame Woytis‘ soup, animals are killed, midnight axe chopping, mutilated lips, fever dreams and a priest who lets loose a swarm of flies when he drops his pants — all of which formulate a sense of doom. Witold is certain that this pending doom threatens to push him into The Void.

When tragedy does strike it fails to register as anything of consequence to the family. Leon takes to the wilderness singing out into what he points out is The Void.

"Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?" Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?”
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

At the film’s mid-point Wiltold has abandoned his studies. Instead he obsesses over Lena and her family. He becomes a willing participant in the sinister happenings that bother him. He turns to philosophical rhetoric for comfort, but begins to chart ideas into some vague sort of story. When we finally see a bit of his writing it is presented on his laptop screen. It is in French and not translated for non-French speakers, but it translates as:

The weight of here and now has become, like the beurk, decisive.

This is in reference to the nausea that begins to overpower Wiltold. Of course we think that Wiltold is writing a story, but there are more than a few hints that he is as motivated by cinema as philosophy. Zulawski has Wiltold and Fuchs poke fun at his own films. At one point it is mentioned that all of these strange happenings might make a good book, but Wiltold disagrees and figures it wold serve better as a movie. Zulawski’s cinematic puzzle ultimately tosses us into meta-film, but this is not an easy-out. It is the only resolution available for Witold, Fuchs, Lena and all involved.

Zulawski takes a poke at Gombrowicz. Of course he has been poking all along. When Fuchs offers a suggestion to the mysteries that have taken place, Witold pulls a bit of met-fiction by explaining his name:

“There’s a reason I have Gombrowicz’s first name. He never knew how to finish his novels nor their meaning.”

 

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski's Universe... Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski’s Universe…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Andrzej Zulawski has said that Cosmos was not only his weirdest film — it was one of the strangest films he had ever seen. I do not agree, but his Cosmos does indeed present an alternative universe. And it forms and is presented in a bizarre range of ways and manner. There is an offer of love, but this universe refuses understanding. Zulawski’s Cosmos is simply idiosyncratic and would far prefer to leave its inhabitants with their own conclusions. But they should never give up or jump off into The Void. This universe is simply too magically odd to skip.

Find Boris Neleop’s interview with Andrzej Zulawski —  here

Mondo Vision’s restored Andrzej Zulawski’s films http://www.mondo-vision.com

Matty Stanfield, 11.22.2016

 

 

 

 

Master cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, was asked to comment on the way neon lights and lighting have impacted his work. As as part of the online exhibition from Mobile M+ and NEONSIGNS.HK, he revisited some of the locations in which he and Kar-wai Wong filmed some of iconic work:

The films we made at a certain period in the 80’s and 90’s wouldn’t be this way if it wasn’t for the space in which they were made…

Beauty hides in the shadows... Carina Lau Days of Being Wild Kar-wai Wong, 1990 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Beauty hides in the shadows…
Carina Lau
Days of Being Wild
Kar-wai Wong, 1990
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

…And our space is a neon space. It’s a light space. It’s a space of energy that is electric. It’s the way people move. It’s the energy of Hong Kong. It’s the excitement of the encounters on the street. And it’s lit by neon, basically. Especially at that time.

 

Surviving in a Neon World Tony Leung Chungking Express Kar-wai Wong, 1994 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Surviving in a Neon World
Tony Leung
Chungking Express
Kar-wai Wong, 1994
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

 

It’s a garish, exuberant possibly empty world if you’re not careful. I think that’s what neon is representing.” — Christopher Doyle, Filming in the Neon World.

For the full film/interview click here:

"Without any warning, she suddenly enters the store. I don't know how long she'll stay." Fallen Angels Kar-Wai Wong, 1998 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

“Without any warning, she suddenly enters the store. I don’t know how long she’ll stay.”
Fallen Angels
Kar-Wai Wong, 1998
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

Doyle’s work for Kar-wai Wong is some of the best cinematography one can ever expect to see. As he explains, it is exuberant — It is also erotic, unique, sensual, dangerous, disorienting and staggeringly beautiful. The shot posted above takes place in a space few of us would want to actually spend time. Much of Fallen Angels seems dirty and possibly even sinister, but eyes do not want to part with the visuals Doyle has captured. Less than a year later he would make his debut as a feature filmmaker. Away With Words featured one of Japan’s hottest  actors, Tadanobu Asano, and an impossibly cool use of music. Most importantly, it was visually amazing. The images of Away With Words imprinted on my brain. Sadly Doyle’s movie was never lucky enough to receive adequate distribution. But for those of us who did see it — the movie lives on.

The criminally neglected and forgotten... Tadanobu Asano Away With Words / San tiao ran Christopher Doyle, 1999

The criminally neglected and forgotten…
Tadanobu Asano
Away With Words / San tiao ran
Christopher Doyle, 1999

The world contained within Away With Words is magically infused with neon light. The movie actually seems to radiate much of the time. This film can still be found via DVD, though it has never received a proper transfer. It is still worth seeing. It is also almost impossible to find any screenshots that do it justice. I must disclose that Christopher Doyle is my favorite cinematographer. For me to write this is a big deal. I love cinematography and there are many artists I admire — but it is usually hard for me to pick out one artist above all others. I do not have this problem when it comes to cinematography. No one shoots a film like Mr. Doyle.

"Turns out that lonely people are all the same." Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Happy Together Kar-wai Wong, 1997 Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

“Turns out that lonely people are all the same.”
Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung
Happy Together
Kar-wai Wong, 1997
Cinematography | Christopher Doyle

The use of neon lighting for film has been going on for some time. It’s seem obvious that lighting is as key to a movie as editing, but it is far more complex than simply providing enough light to capture an image. Lighting allows the filmmaker and cinematographer to not only guide but to literally shape a film’s meaning. Cinematography incorporates all essential elements to form the essence of a movie. When one thinks of neon lighting for film, it would seem it best for creating either a sterile environment or a world of shadows with the intention of menace or horror. But the use of neon lighting is almost limitless in what it can convey. It all depends on how well the cinematographer understands lighting, is able to collaborate with lighting technicians and how creative he/she is in bringing a personal vision that highlights the essential one belonging to the film’s director.

Gallo horror has never been more beautiful or surreal. This is the perfect example of a great cinematographer. Jessica Harper suspects witchery. Suspiria Dario Argento, 1977 Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

Gallo horror has never been more beautiful or surreal. This is the perfect example of a great cinematographer.
Jessica Harper suspects witchery.
Suspiria
Dario Argento, 1977
Cinematography | Luciano Tovoli

Argento’s Suspiria is a neon lit nightmare. Luciano Tovoli’s camera gives the gratuitous violence and paranormal horrors a sinister sort of beauty without getting in Argento’s way. The cinematographer works for the director, but he/she can bring forth magic that the director is often only able to imagine.

In a passive chronological order, take a look at the following shots that incorporate The Neon World into the frames and meanings of the respective films.

"How much?" American Gigolo Paul Schrader, 1980 Cinematography | John Bailey

“How much?”
American Gigolo
Paul Schrader, 1980
Cinematography | John Bailey

Bailey’s use of neon reds and blacks is the perfect concept for dark eroticism and ever-present danger and paranoia.

Neo-Noir / Neon-Noir meets The Beautiful / The Dangerous Rutger Hauer Blade Runner Ridley Scott, 1982 Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

Neo-Noir / Neon-Noir meets The Beautiful / The Dangerous
Rutger Hauer
Blade Runner
Ridley Scott, 1982
Cinematography | Jordan Cronenweth

I was too young when I first saw Blade Runner to be able to own the language of film, but when I noticed it was referred to as “Neo-Noir” I do remember thinking “Neon-Noir” seemed more sensical. A few years later I would begin to make the connection. I still like the term “Neon Noir” even if it isn’t real.

"This is not a marketplace." Thief Michael Mann, 1981 Cinematography | Donald E. Thorin

“This is not a marketplace.”
Thief
Michael Mann, 1981
Cinematography | Donald E. Thorin

Michael Mann had great luck bringing the neon world to Thief, but the same can’t be said for One From The Heart. Even still, it is a beautiful looking mess of a movie.

Suppose you had Tom Waits create an amazing score and perfected visuals to a neon-infused glow -- and nobody came to see it? Nastassja Kinski glowing... One From The Heart Francis Ford Coppola, 1982 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro / Ronald Víctor García

Suppose you had Tom Waits create an amazing score and perfected visuals to a neon-infused glow — and nobody came to see it?
Nastassja Kinski glowing…
One From The Heart
Francis Ford Coppola, 1982
Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro /
Ronald Víctor García

Tony Scott’s The Hunger is seamlessly beautiful — the film’s opening moments/credits are unforgettable and immediately set the stage. Shadowed, cool, stylish and throbbing with electricity and hyper eroticism — this world is beguiling, but we all know that Bela Lugosi’s Dead.

"Nothing human loves forever..." Peter Murphy The Hunger Tony Scott, 1983 Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

“Nothing human loves forever…”
Peter Murphy
The Hunger
Tony Scott, 1983
Cinematography | Stephen Goldblatt

Ken Russell may have not had a big budget, but he understood how he exactly how he wanted to capture China Blue’s surreal world of fantasy, cheap thrills and escape.  Dick Bush was a master, but it was usually his director’s who pushed him forward. And he never failed them.

Welcome to the Neon Surrealism of Ms. China Blue... Kathleen Turner Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Welcome to the Neon Surrealism of Ms. China Blue…
Kathleen Turner
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Wim Wender’s Paris Texas seems an odd fit for utilizing the idea of a Neon-drenched world, but Robby Muller brings the idea to glorious use more than a couple of times within Wender’s concept.

There is distinct beauty and sadness in every shot... Paris Texas Wim Wenders, 1984 Cinematography | Robby Muller

There is distinct beauty and sadness in every shot…
Paris Texas
Wim Wenders, 1984
Cinematography | Robby Muller

David Lynch’s collaborations with the great Frederick Elmes never fail to seduce, hypnotize and repulse. Blue Velvet is a classic example of Neo-Noir …and Neon-Noir Surrealism.

This is not your grandparents Film Noir... Isabella Rossellini Blue Velvet David Lynch, 1986 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

This is not your grandparents Film Noir…
Isabella Rossellini
Blue Velvet
David Lynch, 1986
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

Finding the image from Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct was not as easy as I had expected. Most remember this film for Sharon Stone’s brave and no-hold-barred performance (and flash!) but I always think of that amazing scene where the detective enters a raving dance club to find his Femme Fatale. This is not a good example of the way Jan de Bont was able to capture the electric energy of this nightclub, but you can get the general idea. It was too masterful to leave out.

Forgive the poor quality image, but lighting intensity adds to the protagonist's adrenaline rush as he navigates a San Francisco night club. Basic Instinct Paul Verhoeven, 1992 Cinematography | Jan de Bont

Forgive the poor quality image, but lighting intensity adds to the protagonist’s adrenaline rush as he navigates a San Francisco night club.
Basic Instinct
Paul Verhoeven, 1992
Cinematography | Jan de Bont

Michael Mann had already established a magical sort of neon energy for the protagonist of Thief, but he found new ways to utilize it for the visually dazzling, HEAT.

A familiar story is captured in brilliant moments of light, shadow, form and reflection. HEAT Michael Mann, 1995 Cinematography | Dante Spinotti

A familiar story is captured in brilliant moments of light, shadow, form and reflection.
HEAT
Michael Mann, 1995
Cinematography | Dante Spinotti

Terry Gilliam and Nicola Pecorini bring neon, chaos, paranoia and delirium to Las Vegas of the late 1960’s.

The neon glow of Vegas seeps into the hotel rooms, desert and a drug fueled mind. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Terry Gilliam, 1998 Cinematography | Nicola Pecorini

The neon glow of Vegas seeps into the hotel rooms, desert and a drug fueled mind.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Terry Gilliam, 1998
Cinematography | Nicola Pecorini

Skipping ahead a few years and even Jason Statham gets the neon touch…

"Now I go back to the street and disappear." This spaces of this Neon World threaten with lighted colors. Jason Statham Steven Knight, 2013 Cinematography | Chris Menges

“Now I go back to the street and disappear.”
This spaces of this Neon World threaten with lighted colors.
Jason Statham
Steven Knight, 2013
Cinematography | Chris Menges

Yorick Le Saux adds a whole new context of meaning to Jim Jarmusch’s already cool vampiric world…

Love, Marriage and devotion in a world of neon light. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston  Only Lovers Left Alive Jim Jarmusch, 2013 Cinematography | Yorick Le Saux

Love, Marriage and devotion in a world of neon light.
Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston
Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch, 2013
Cinematography | Yorick Le Saux

Just as one should never attempt to mention neon lighting in film without a discussion of Christoper Doyle’s masterful work — it would be tragic to not highlight Benoit Debie’s cinematography. Harmony Korine has always been astute regarding his cinematic visions, but Debie brings a hue to Spring Breakers that only he could create.

Teen rebellion and rape culture are satirized in a fusion of neon and electrified dub-steps... Spring Breakers Harmony Korine, 2012 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Teen rebellion and rape culture are satirized in a fusion of neon and electrified dub-steps…
Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine, 2012
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

The critics may have dismissed Ryan Gosling feature film directorial debut, but I still contend they were wrong. If nothing else, Benoit Debie added neon drenched meanings, mystery and surreal horrors forward in Lost River. The film is not perfect, but it arches forward in simultaneously borrowed but eccentric uniqueness. In its own way, Lost River, if almost brilliant. This is no one’s standard coming of age movie.

"Live" Adult Entertainment takes a very glowing dark turn... Eva Mendes Lost River Ryan Gosling, 2014 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

“Live” Adult Entertainment takes a very glowing dark turn…
Eva Mendes
Lost River
Ryan Gosling, 2014
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Just as Christopher Doyle will forever be linked with Kar-wai Wong — so will Benoit Debie with Gaspar Noe. It is a supreme compliment to both directors that they have been able to collaborate so beautifully with two distinctly brilliant cinematographers. While all four are linked respectively together — Wong and Noe have never been hesitant to share the credit for the power of the fieldwork.

Strong case in point, Noe actually shares cinematography credit with Debie for Irreversible. It says a great deal that I am never sure who is behind the camera in this deeply disturbing film. Irreversible is a remarkable work of cinematic art, but it is almost as problematic. One thing is most certain, the quality of the camerawork and use of lighting can only be praised. Even if you have opted to not put yourself through the inhumane horrors of this film — I suspect you will recognize this image.

Neon lighting radiates sinister energy as Monica Bellucci leads the camera to one of the most disturbing and controversial scenes of sexual violence ever put to film... Irreversible Gaspar Noe, 2002 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

Neon lighting radiates sinister energy as Monica Bellucci leads the camera to one of the most disturbing and controversial scenes of sexual violence ever put to film…
Irreversible
Gaspar Noe, 2002
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And when it comes to the power of neon lighting within the context of filmmaking, one would be hard pressed to think of a better example than Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void. Intentionally a trip of a film experience, Benoit Debie’s mark is ever-present.

"It's fucking cold." ENTER THE VOID Gaspar Noe, 2009 Cinematography | Benoit Debie | Cinematography

“It’s fucking cold.”
ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe, 2009
Cinematography | Benoit Debie | Cinematography

 

"I can't believe this is real." ENTER THE VOID Gaspar Noe, 2009 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

“I can’t believe this is real.”
ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe, 2009
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And while Love may not be much of a movie, it is often amazing to watch for visuals alone. Once again, Debie infuses neon light throughout.

The Neon replaces the passion and thrills of romance and sexual release... Karl Glusman and Aomi Muyock Love Gaspar Noe, 2015 Cinematography | Benoit Debie

The Neon replaces the passion and thrills of romance and sexual release…
Karl Glusman and Aomi Muyock
Love
Gaspar Noe, 2015
Cinematography | Benoit Debie

And if there is one director who has spent a career studying and utilizing neon for filmmaking it would be Nicolas Winding Refn. Even under the constraint of a limited budget, his focus was on capturing the energy, insanity and terror of the drug underworld via lighting. The Pusher Trilogy shows what a skilled artist can do with very little.

Burning the image to neon is not new to Mr. Refn PUSHER Mads Mikkelsen Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996 Cinematography | Morten Soborg

Burning the image to neon is not new to Mr. Refn
PUSHER
Mads Mikkelsen
Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996
Cinematography | Morten Soborg

The film itself may be flawed, but Fear X is of note because it marks the first collaboration between Refn and Larry Smith. Paranoia, fear, rage, mystery and horror benefit from a very neon-ed space.

Accidental Death or murder? These spaces offer menacing paranoia. John Turturro Fear X Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003 Cinematography | Larry Smith

Accidental Death or murder? These spaces offer menacing paranoia.
John Turturro
Fear X
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2003
Cinematography | Larry Smith

2008’s Bronson is a cinematic marvel on more than a few counts — one of them is the way in which Larry Smith pushes neon to the limits to merge reality with the fantasy of Surrealism.

 

Realism, Surrealism, Desire, Isolation and fantasies bleed to form a life trapped in a neon-glow. Tom Hardy BRONSON Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008 Cinematography | Larry Smith

Realism, Surrealism, Desire, Isolation and fantasies bleed to form a life trapped in a neon-glow.
Tom Hardy
BRONSON
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008
Cinematography | Larry Smith

Nicolas Winding Refn and Larry Smith use Drive to serve as the perfect synthesis of their shared vision. It is all about style and manipulation of light.

"Is he a bad guy?" Drive Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011 Cinematography | Newton Thomas Sigel

“Is he a bad guy?”
Drive
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011
Cinematography | Newton Thomas Sigel

The envelope got pushed off the table and then blown toward the door for their next collaborative effort, Only God Forgives. While it is not a perfect movie, it is certainly not the flop that so many critics wanted us to believe. Only God Forgives is a metaphorical nightmare that often looks more animated than real. Odd and completely unforgettable — another exorcise in style and manipulation.

"Time to meet The Devil." Bathed in Neon, Kristin Scott Thomas isn't worried. Nicolas Winding Rein, 2013 Cinematography | Larry Smith

“Time to meet The Devil.”
Bathed in Neon, Kristin Scott Thomas isn’t worried.
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013
Cinematography | Larry Smith

Sadly Larry Smith was not involved in Mr. Refn’s next experiment, but it is unlikely that Refn would have budged even the slightest. The title says it all. The Neon Demon is a cinematic error. This time Refn didn’t even bother to push the envelope. He simply refused to acknowledge that an envelope existed. Beautiful, seductive, twisted and so cool it is almost frozen  — The Neon Demon stands indignant and absolutely lost in the garishness of its own neon glow.

And, cue the tipping point... The Neon Demon Elle Fanning Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

And, cue the tipping point…
The Neon Demon
Elle Fanning
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Jenna Malone is the only actor who manages to walk away unscathed. Of course this Demon is so very neon, we sometimes can hardly see her.

Neon lighting so deep we can barely see it. This might be a good thing. Jenna Malone is full of beauty... The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Neon lighting so deep we can barely see it. This might be a good thing.
Jenna Malone is full of beauty…
The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

It may not work, but Natasha Braier is certainly up for the challenges her director presents.

The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016 Cinematography | Natasha Braier

The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016
Cinematography | Natasha Braier

Matty Stanfield, 9.20.2016

 

 

 

 

At this moment, it was still very much style over substance. But this would soon change. Performance Donald Cammell / Nicolas Roeg, 1970 Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

At this moment, it was still very much style over substance. But this would soon change.
Performance
Donald Cammell / Nicolas Roeg, 1970
Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

Having the opportunity to interview or chat with a filmmaker is always interesting, but once in a while it can be somewhat magical. From time to time a highly respected and successful film artist manages to escape the limitations of celebrity. Not all celebrated filmmakers live in bubbles.

And while it often feels a thing of the past, there are still filmmakers who are more concerned with filmmaking as an art form than as the opportunity for the wealth of a franchise. No artist desires creating work that fails to connect with an audience, but there are some who are far more concerned with a personal vision than worrying about selling tickets. While this can create limitations for the filmmaker, it also presents a great level of freedom.

Nicolas Roeg BBC Arena Portrait Photograph | David Thompson, 2015

Nicolas Roeg
BBC Arena Portrait
Photograph | David Thompson, 2015

One such filmmaker is Nicolas Cage. If you’ve ever watched or read an interview with eccentric auteur you will be aware that his style of conversing is at once intellectual and rather free-form. His style of discussing his work, history and ideas often ramble, but they never miss their mark.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to Nicolas Roeg speak, you will note a highly intelligent and genuine man. It is impossible to miss the fact that he is so filled with ideas that he tends talk in meandering and circular logic sentences. Last year, after overcoming more than a few challenges, The Criterion Collection re-mastered and re-issued Don’t Look Now. It features a discussion filmed in 2003 at London’s Ciné Lumière. It is an entertaining discussion and fully captures the way in which Roeg communicates. More importantly, it lets us see how he thinks and more than a little insight into how he makes films. He has always stretched cinematography and film editing to the limits to mimic the ways the human mind works. It may not always appear logical if we can slow down long enough to notice the jumbled order of our thoughts, but we are able to connect the dots of our odd assortment of ideas to lead us to the ways in which we operate.

If there is one element that shines through when listening to Mr. Roeg is the constant desire to find ways for film to connect with the human brain. When he made his debut as a film director it was a collaboration with writer/director, Donald Cammell.

There is a great deal more going on behind James Fox's "Johnny's" violent actions than simple thuggery. James Fox Performance Donald Cammell / Nicolas Roeg, 1970 Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

There is a great deal more going on behind James Fox’s “Johnny’s” violent actions than simple thuggery.
James Fox
Performance
Donald Cammell / Nicolas Roeg, 1970
Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

That debut film was Performance. Essentially a thriller in which a thug makes the mistake of hiding out in the home of rock star and his two groupies. The “thrill” aspect of the film takes a long fall as the film quickly evolves into a surrealistic study of a drug-fueled, hallucinogenic trip into identity. The film remains firmly seated as a dated but groundbreaking film of its time featuring Mick Jagger playing the odd rock star who pulls James Fox into a great deal more than his own isolated world.

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

There only appears to be no rules... Mick Jagger Performance Donald Cammell / Nicolas Roeg, 1970 Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

There only appears to be no rules…
Mick Jagger
Performance
Donald Cammell / Nicolas Roeg, 1970
Cinematography | Nicolas Roeg

It is an iconic film. It is also offers a key insight into what would soon become Nic Roeg’s life long pursuit toward a whole new kind of cinematic language. The idea of filming and editing a film to reflect the inner-workings of the human mind is forming. As Performance was a collaborative effort and firmly rooted in the culture of late 1960’s Swinging London world of fashion, rock and drugs — the uses of this idea never fully form. Instead the film often employs stylistic choices of jittery fast cuts and odd perspectives that are as ornamental as they are meaningful. Even still Roeg’s approach human thought as a method of plot projection is there.

Even the smallest creatures fight to survive. A picnic in the outback turns into a journey of cruel awakening, self-discovery and survival. A Cinematographer becomes an Auteur. Walkabout Nicolas Roeg, 1971

Even the smallest creatures fight to survive. A picnic in the outback turns into a journey of cruel awakening, self-discovery and survival. A Cinematographer becomes an Auteur.
Walkabout
Nicolas Roeg, 1971

Nicolas Roeg’s true directorial debut is filled with ideas and unique perceptions. A brother and sister escape the insanity of their troubled father to find themselves in the wilds of The Australian Outback. The title of the film comes from the Aboriginal concept of a male’s journey to adulthood. And with the assistance of a young man in the middle of his tribal ritual “walkabout” — the siblings journey through adversity and mystery toward their own adulthood.

What constantly threatens danger springs forward into a celebration of life's possibilities... Jenny Agutter Walkabout Nicolas Roeg, 1971

What constantly threatens danger springs forward into a celebration of life’s possibilities…
Jenny Agutter
Walkabout
Nicolas Roeg, 1971

Along the way cultural differences cause confusion and alarm. It is a film about survival thanks to human kindness. But more than anything it is a startling view of how racism and cultural differences are so engrained, no amount of human kindness can make them go away.  Roeg’s camera captures reality through a sort of surrealistic lens. The careful use of Antony Gibbs and Alan Pattillos’ editing allow us to view the realities and revelations from the perspective of two young adults and a child. It is here that we get a glimpse of identity perspective through the way the characters’ minds take in and view individual perceptions of experience.

A beautiful and tragic experimental film about both the strengths and flaws of the human condition. Another idea is put forward that hints that as our society applies more and more pressures, the concept of a walkabout could become a new sort of ritual for human beings contained within a society that only appears to offer safety and protection.

A young man takes a look at the land of his future and a shot becomes an iconic image. David Gulpilil Walkabout Nicolas Roeg, 1971

A young man takes a look at the land of his future and a shot becomes an iconic image.
David Gulpilil
Walkabout
Nicolas Roeg, 1971

When one watches Roeg’s 1980’s Bad Timing, a story of lust turned to obsession that not only pushes both individuals to the limits — it pulls one of them into the darkest corners of insanity. Bad Timing is graphic in the use of nudity, but the story it tells is not all that unusual. What makes this film standout as a work of cinematic art is the blending and discordant use of plot points into a fluid labyrinthine of perspectives that is often almost impossible to follow. The concept of flashback story-telling takes an almost hysterical detour into uncharted territories.

What often feels like a murder mystery is really far more complex in what it attempts to do. Bad Timing dares to toss a number of film genres our way, but the goal here is not suspense or even mystery. This film charts the deterioration of both the human mind and psyche after the requirements of desire, lust and sexual obsession have overtaken the rational.

"I'll be dead in a minute; just wanted to say good-bye." Who is in control? Who is being seduced? And in what order are these experiences happening?  Art Garfunkel / Theresa Russell Bad Timing Nicolas Roeg, 1980 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

“I’ll be dead in a minute; just wanted to say good-bye.”
Who is in control? Who is being seduced? And in what order are these experiences happening?
Art Garfunkel / Theresa Russell
Bad Timing
Nicolas Roeg, 1980
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

Tony Lawson’s editing of Anthony B. Richmond’s oddly framed cinematography shifts the viewer perspective into a strange flow that is challenging to grasp. The majority of film critics and audiences at the time tended to dismiss the film. Art Garfunkel’s low-key performance mixing with Harvey Keitel’s intensity and Theresa Russell’s unhinged demonstration of carnal obsession often feels like a cinematic experiment with celluloid as rubber band. Bad Timing was so strange at the time it was released that it would take a good decade before it would be reconsidered and re-evaluated for the exceptional film it is. This film remains strange and refuses to give in.

tumblr_ngklgdbxKL1tus777o3_r1_1280

“You tell the truth about a lie so beautifully.” Art Garfunkel / Theresa Russell Bad Timing Nicolas Roeg, 1980 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

Don’t Look Now takes us to a Venice steeped in decay, sadness and uncertain dangers. We are led through a series of seemingly endless loop of dark tunnels. We pass over aged bridges in a fog of mystery. Hope can become deadly. Grief can become a release. Like life, nothing is at it appears. Constantly shifting back and forth in time which only becomes obvious upon a second screening. Everything is viewed with disconnected logic and paranormal hindsight. There is a constant confusion of “real-time” with conscious and subconscious perceptions. An unrelenting sense of déjà vu that our protagonist refuses to own or fully evaluate.

Nothing is what it appears... Julie Christie Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

Nothing is what it appears…
Julie Christie
Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

A cinematic masterwork that captures a young couple trying to re-connect and support each other in order to survive the worst experience life can offer.  It is a truly horrific film that somehow manages to be both beautiful and hauntingly sad. This is a surreal horror film about love, guilt, connections and grief.

"This one who's blind. She's the one that can see." Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973

“This one who’s blind. She’s the one that can see.”
Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1973

This controversial 1973 film remains Roeg’s most successful film. Don’t Look Now is perhaps the best example of how Nicolas Roeg’s films work.

These films are about a whole lot more than seeingthese films are about how we think.

Matty Stanfield, 2.8.2016

 

Barbet Schroeder has always been interested in human obsessions and the dynamic of relationships, but when he got the idea to make Maîtresse he added something rather strange: Comedy. If you have never seen his infamous 1975 film, you should be aware of several things prior to watching it. The first of which is that this is essentially a very dark comedy about an unlikely love between a professional Dominatrix and a somewhat dim-witted would-be-thug.  The second is that it is probably the closest a film has come to capturing the true idea of BDSM as something more than a simple desire — for Ariane (Bulle Ogier) and her clients, it is a true obsession. While she might attempt to keep her professional life hidden in the strange world isolated in a cloistered series of rooms beneath her apartment, it becomes clear that this world is more than a way to earn money. Elements of her sadism have already worked their way into her sunny world.

Stylish lady with some secrets... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Stylish lady with some secrets…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Like her clients, this is an obsession meant to be hidden from the rest of the world to see. The third is that Maîtresse is a very graphic film. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The final and most important general statement about Maîtresse is that it is a highly artistic and well-crafted film. While it does not deserve to be listed or thought of as Shock Cinema, it is a most certainly highly provocative work. Schroeder is an intellectually restrained artist, but he is most certainly putting himself in the role of provocateur when it comes to this unforgettable and odd movie.

When Barbet Schroeder began production of Maîtresse in 1974 he knew he was creating a provocative film, but he had no idea just how difficult it would be to secure distribution in 1975. It would be more than a couple of years before this infamous film would be seen much at all. The film was essentially banned and censored for over six years after the initial debut. The UK would prove the toughest nut to crack. Interestingly it was not so much due to the exploration into the world of a French Dominatrix which included graphic depictions of BDSM activities, nor was it actually due to anything tied up in fetish and kink and it certainly wasn’t the horrific visit to a Paris horse meat slaughterhouse. The bottomline reason Schroeder’s film was refused release into the UK was because it featured the back view of a vulva.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975

To give the British Board of Film Classification their due — they were smart enough to actually state that the film’s refusal was related to the “excessive” degrees of fetishism. The real reason BBFC denied release to the film was not because a person was being whipped, it was because the audience could see her vulva. The board did not mind that the audience could see a penis being severely mistreated. They were upset that the man seemed to enjoy having his genitals mistreated.

Maîtresse was screened and received a limited release in the US. The distributor assigned the film an X-rating on its own. So limited was the release that very few film critics actually reviewed it. The New York Times quite liked it. But the film became notorious with relatively few people having ever actually seen it. That all changed when The Criterion Collection remastered and released it to DVD in 2004.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Criterion Collection, 2004

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Criterion Collection, 2004

While the uncensored theatrical cut of Maîtresse had been released to the UK via DVD starting in 2003, the transfers were not solid. Under their Flipside Editions, The British Film Institute released it to Blu-ray in 2012. Blu quality enhanced, the BFI release is actually superior to the Criterion Collection pressing. There has been some very loose rumors that Criterion may give the film another image/sound boost to re-issue to Blu-ray, but it is rather unlikely. The film’s graphic scene filmed in an actual horse slaughterhouse is truly horrific to watch. This scene is most likely intended to act as a sort of metaphor for a powerful beast being reduced to a powerless victim ultimately utilized as food. The scene arrives in the story when the leading man is feeling powerless and emasculated.

Even playing "footsie" takes a turn... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Even playing “footsie” takes a turn…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Note: Even by 1975 horse meat had already become a taboo form of food in more than a couple of countries. However it should be noted that while it has dramatically shifted away from favor, there are still butcher shops in France specifically reserved for the sale of this meat. All the same this is an alarming scene that will most likely put off a good number of people. As an FYI, Schroeder’s use of the footage is almost tame when compared to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s use of Goethe recitation as the audience is led through the horrors of a slaughterhouse in 1978’s In a Year of 13 Moons. Fassbinder employed this form of human brutality to create a metaphor for fascism and despair. Unlike Schroeder’s movie,  Fassbinder’s film is not even remotely a comedy. Still both films carry a repugnant reputation for screening graphic screening of animal slaughter. Consider yourself warned.

All the same, it is annoying that the Criterion transfer is inferior to the one released by BFI Flipside Edition.

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer. Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 BFI Flipside, 2012

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer.
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
BFI Flipside, 2012

While one might expect a 1975 French film to be dated, it really isn’t. Even the clothing is not particularly 1970’s tacky. Let’s not forget that Karl Lagerfeld was in charge of costume design. …And the line between S&M to Lagerfeld is fairly short in distance.

And speaking of Sadomasochism, Maîtresse is one of the few films to actually craft a realistic depiction of this subculture. While many speak of Sadomasochism, the reality is that a true Sadist is not going to derive much pleasure from role-play. And while one might think of a Masochist as passive or willing victim, the true master of S&M role-play is always the Masochist. In other words, there is a very dark side to the games that many adults play. In Maîtresse the role playing is most definitely in action, but the games are being played with the rules loose and usually hidden. During the first half of the film it would appear that  Ariane takes no particular pleasure in what she does in the lair beneath her bright apartment, but Schroeder slowly begins to reveal aspects of her true nature as the film moves forward.

Going down below to a domestic torture garden... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Going down below to a domestic torture garden…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Ariane seems to take true delight in feeding a collection of venus fly trap plants. Her high-scale bathtub has been crafted to include a bottom chamber that she has filled with water snakes or eels who feed off small fish which she her maid/assistant pours into the mix. And of course as the battle of the sexes ensues we see examples of her need to remain firmly in the position of dominance.

Tighten up the gimp... Bulle Ogier & Client Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tighten up the gimp…
Bulle Ogier & Client
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The film’s perspective belongs to leading man of the story. Gérard Depardieu’s Olivier appears to be a harmless sort of guy, but it only takes a small opportunity and he is ready to take up the grift as burglar. And it only takes another moment or two before we realize that this burly young man is a criminal. The film’s plot begins as Olivier and a pal break into what they think is an empty Parisian apartment. Like voyeurs, we follow these knuckleheads into a creepy dark space. With only a flashlight to provide limited perspective, we understand within a few seconds that this is no ordinary apartment. The small light reveals gimp masks, gas masks, latex & rubber suits, a hanging noose, a sinister looking dental chair, something like a torture rack, loads of odd surgical type equipment, dildos, baby bottles, diapers, a wide variety of torture tools and a terrified naked man shivering in a dog pen.  This might all read a bit funnier than it is. I first saw this movie in Cambridge back in the 1990’s and it was and remains a genuinely creepy opening sequence. Soon these two thugs find themselves handcuffed together and to a radiator as Bulle Ogier’s Ariane tends to her clients.

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

This is a filmmaker’s movie. Gerard Depardieu is well cast in the type of role for which he was best known in his youth — a sort of primally sexy gentle giant. It is really through Olivier‘s eyes that the audience sees the film. While this man is far from innocent, he clearly has no understanding of the world to which he has entered. But it is both comical and interesting that he finds himself deeply attracted to Ariane. His desire for her begins as she one-up’s both he and his pal by managing to cuff them together with no hope of escape. His attraction only builds as she offers him a chance to make some money and leads him further into the dark corners of her domestic torture garden. As they approach a man dressed in female bondage gear, she demands that the client get on all fours. She straddles him and positions Olivier directly in front of the masochist’s face. Olivier looks more curious than shocked. She unzips her burglar’s fly, pulls out his penis and demands that he urinate in the client’s face. Olivier‘s eyes never leave those of Ariane. As we hear the urine release he shares a passionate kiss with her. Suddenly this brute of a man is in love.

And now we begin your punishment... A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

And now we begin your punishment…
A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

After a night of what appears to be romance funded by Ariane, the two lie in bed. There are no professions of love, but it is clear it is there. Schroeder’s screenplay and Bulle Ogier’s careful performance require no words for the audience to understand that much of her attraction / fondness for Olivier is grounded in his mix of dull intellect, brutish but placid assertions of dominance. Of course the deal-sealer for Ariane is that this man is unabashedly almost worshiping in his adoration. There is also no need for discussion regarding Olivier‘s confusion regarding the downstairs world of his love’s professional life. All Depardieu need to do is offer a glance and we know that he is even more confused than those of us in the audience.

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment...

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment… Bulls Ogier / Wealthy Clients / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When Ariane essentially tricks him into visiting a friend in the country, he has no idea that she is leading him into a Dominatrix scenario involving a group of wealthy devotees. Confused, unsure and fearful of being judged as less than a man Olivier agreed to remove his belt and whip the pretty and only female player in the chateau. It is clear that he simply does not understand why a tough whipping would provide pleasure. Eager to demonstrate his abilities to his new lover, he opts to softly tease the masochist’s vulva. Of course this only demonstrates his misunderstanding of this type of desire. The wealthy clients are amused as is Ariane. But Olivier and the audience are confused and worried that he is being used and reduced to some sort of walking joke.

When I saw Maîtresse for the first time back in the 1990’s I had been informed that it was a dark comedy. At this time it was hard for me to accept it as comedy. It seemed to me that the film was aiming far deeper than one anticipates from the genre. Despite my own desire to interpret the movie in a different way there were elements that simply did not seem to fit the action on the screen.

Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified...

Néstor Almendros captures our Mistress in perfect frame to emerge with a halo for the man who will become obsessed. Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified… Bulls Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Carlos D’Alessio’s musical score seemed odd. It is a rather charming bit of work that never fits into the world we and Olivier are exploring. In addition some of the darkest moments contained within the movie have no musical accompaniment. Seeing the film again after it had been added to The Criterion Collection, the comedy of Maîtresse hit me. Certainly not a comic experience that generates laughs as much as amusement — this is more a sense of bemusement. This is, of course, a French film. I love French cinema, but no one else presents comedy quite like the French. This level of dark comedy or comédie de l’ cruels has become more familiar outside of French cinema in the past decade. John Magary’s recent brilliant independent American film, The Mend, presents an incisive and rage-filled study of two brothers as the sort of dark comedy one might expect from France. Serious studies of humanity taking a turn toward the comical is not so odd to most of us anymore. Despite all of the transgressions and darker elements of identity, Maîtresse is most certainly a comedy.

Watching love's persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend.

Watching love’s persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend. Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

A key to understanding Maîtresse is to know that nothing we see is eroticized. This is not an erotic film.

When we are given glimpses into the Maitresse’s world of punishment and humiliation it is either directly related to Olivier‘s sneaking around peaking or listening. Schroeder spent a good deal of time researching the subject matter of the film as he felt no connection to the world of S&M. Much of Bulle Ogier’s character is based on an actual dominatrix. He gained her trust and she agreed to allow she and several of her clients to be used in the film itself. Long before the idea of digital effects existed, Schroeder carefully placed the actual dominatrix in relation to his actress/wife’s positions. The actual members of the 1970’s Parisian BDSM Underground wear masks to protect their identity, but they are willfully accepting their mistresses’ punishments. All is filmed to make it look as if Ogier is the one applying nails, needles and other manipulations. Filmed without typical movie lighting or other stylings, these transgressive acts are presented with only the sounds that were occurring at the time of filming. The result is often jarring and more than a little shocking, but never eroticized.

Nothing is ever explained beyond the most limited of discussion. Like Olivier, we are left with only what we see and might already understand separate from the film. Unlike Olivier, we are hopefully not quite so simple in our thinking and reasoning. And let’s hope we are not male chauvinist pigs. Olivier has a deep-seated need to dominate his woman. Having grown into a world of cruelty and crime, he has no trouble formulating the idea that his girl is a prostitute in need of a strong pimp. He wants the role of her pimp. And he wants to find a way to help her earn even more money. Because it is all about money. Right?!? 

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it... Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it…
Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tragically for Olivier, he is unable to grasp that Ariane needs no protecting and certainly no pimp. Ariane never states an opinion, but it is clear that she does not identify as a prostitute and would never even consider the idea of pimp in her existence. As Olivier becomes more and more obsessed with understanding what Ariane does and why people pay her to do it — he becomes even more determined to know all of her secrets. The identity of a certain person constantly being mentioned in relation to money either with her maid or on one of her two phones consumes Olivier.

It is at this point of the story that we fully begin to understand the depth of Ariane‘s own perverse sadistic urges. It would not take much for her to simply explain it all to Olivier, but she has far too much fun watching him struggle for his grounding and fret over the details of her life.

Even when Olivier’s tendencies toward domestic abuse begin to flare up, she maintains her sense of control.

He's just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now?

He’s just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now? Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When he puts his huge hands around her slender throat she plays it off as if a game. Poor Olivier doesn’t even pick up that he has failed to scare her. Later when he finally pushes things too far and our Maîtresse has had enough, she head-butts Olivier so hard blood begins to pour from his nose. Clearly shocked by her strength, his reaction is to attempt to warn Ariane that she too has been harmed. He is concerned. Ariane is unbothered by the self-damage inflicted by her head-butting. She is seething with anger.

It is the dim-witted Olivier who is emotionally crushed. This is not the first time we have seen this rough and huge man fall to pieces over his girl.  Control and cruelty are needs and that refuse to stay in that dark cave of torture secretly adjoined to her private home. These needs are not being fully satisfied by respecting most of her clients’ wishes and safe words. A Sadist wants real control and a victim. She is happy to play along with Olivier‘s limited view of women for the pleasure his pain provides.

She may look the part of angel, but this aspect is in appearance only.

Another key scene involves some personal and rather rough role-play between Ariane and Olivier. Schroeder wisely shoots this scene in a particularly ambiguous way. It looks like a violent public fight between the two characters as reality with the looming threat of rape. When the two end up in a garden shed of an elderly woman we hear Ariane‘s screams. As the poor old woman rushes to come to the aide of the petit blond woman, Olivier emerges with a switchblade pointed to kill. When Ariane walks out of the shed she is still pulling up her skirt. We might expect that she would feel empathy for the elder woman, but instead she merely leans into Olivier and mockingly suggests he leave the poor “old dear” alone. She skips away without even waiting to see what Olivier might do.

We never actually  know if this was a bit of role-playing or a real scenario that Ariane has manifested / navigated for some sadistic fun.

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man. Bulle Ogier  Maîtresse  Barbet Schroeder, 1975  Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man.
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Despite the dark elements of the on-screen actions, this is a story about the battle of the sexes. It is also an odd 1970’s twist on Feminisim. The key word here is “odd.” In many ways it almost seems a mistake that Barbet Schroeder opted to sculpt a very twisted romantic comedy from the BDSM clay of his story. There are so many aspects of Bulle Ogier’s Ariane it seems a bit of a waste of a great actress that she is unable to explore them. As I’ve stated several times, not much is ever explained about the title character.

Forever lingering with mystery...

Forever lingering with mystery… Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The subplot of Ariane‘s situation is only mentioned in passing. I’m not sure I even fully noticed it upon my first viewing some 20 years ago, but it is wrought with dramatic potential. La Maîtresse is the mother of an elementary school age child.  An older gentleman (who may or may not be the child’s father) appears to have taken custody of the child. We may not know the full story here, but it would appear that Ariane is fine with this arrangement and most likely has intended it to be this way. When we see her with her child she clearly feels a stronger bond to her Doberman Pinscher. A beloved pet she has named Texas and claims to have trained to kill upon demand. We do not know if this is true, but it seems likely to be an accurate claim. Her young son appears to attempt to gain his mother’s attention, but Ariane is far more interested with Texas. When the boy walks off with his guardian/father, Ariane appears bored, but fixated on the dog. We never learn the name of her son, but she is more than happy to sneak away and join Olivier on a very strange drive in which the battle for power takes a surprising turn.

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?!

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?! Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse is an uncomplicated film about some very complicated people. The choice to keep it unexplained and unexplored is intentional. And as it turns out this was a very clever and wise decision. Maîtresse pulls us in just deep enough to make us squirm but never so far out that we need to grasp for air. It also prevents the film from slipping into a psychological realm that would ultimately prove disappointing.

Why?

Well sometimes life’s complications and the obsessions to which it leads are too murky to actually articulate.

Matty Stanfield, 1.28.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was once a time when Madonna presented ideas far deeper than that of “Pop Star.” While those days seem to have past, many of the ideas she presented and asserted remain.

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner's insightful novel for the screen. Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård The Diary of a Teenage Girl Marielle Heller, 2015 Photograph | Sam Emerson

Lucky for us a female film artist adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s insightful novel for the screen.
Kristen Wiig / Bel Powley / Alexander Skarsgård
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Marielle Heller, 2015
Photograph | Sam Emerson

One of the last times I recall finding myself thinking about something she co-created was her 2000 single:

“Skin that shows in patches.
Strong inside but you don’t know it.

Good little girls they never show it.
When you open up your mouth to speak, could you be a little weak?

Do you know what it feels like for a girl?
Do you know what it feels like in this world…” — Madonna

Aside from being catchy, this pop song did elevate itself more than a little by what it had to say about the ever-mounting challenges and societal/cultural indifference and injustices perpetuated against and projected upon the idea of female identity. Sadly, the iconic superstar chose to have her then filmmaker husband create the song’s vid-clip. The video for this song was crass and violent for reasons of shock-value vs. offering any level of content truly relevant toward a song that seemed tied to a young woman attempting to indicate the cruel patriarchal views to a young male. A missed opportunity to say the least.

Marguerite Duras' novel about a young woman's sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard. Jane March / Tony Leung The Lover Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992 Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

Marguerite Duras’ novel about a young woman’s sexual awakening received a very male-eroticized translation from Jean-Jacques Annard.
Jane March / Tony Ka Fai Leung
The Lover
Jean-Jacques Annard, 1992
Cinematography | Robert Fraisse

It has taken a tragic and centuries long tyranny for women to finally make significant strides in the areas of filmmaking. Such recently formed groups like The Alliance for Women in Media have smartly utilized social media to promote, promote and organize female film artists. While the idea of the female filmmaker is not at all new, the voices of these film artists that have managed to gain attention are painfully few. Those voices that have managed to obtain success have largely been built on celebrity [think Nora Ephron, Julie Delpy, Barbra Streisand, Penny Marshall, Elaine May, Susan Sideman, Anne Fontaine, Diane Keaton or Kathryn Bigelow] or controversial films that were either too scandalous or provocative [think Claire Denis, Lina Wertmüller, Patty Jenkins, Liliana Cavani, Lynne Ramsay, Mary Harron, Mia Hansen-Løve, Doris Dörrie or Catherine Breillat] to be ignored.

Note: this statement and the listed artists is not intended toward the quality of work or respective importance. However significant gains have been made in just the last ten years.

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King SELMA Ava DuVernay, 2014 Cinematography | Bradford Young

One of the most important historic moments in US history is captured by a female director.
Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King
SELMA
Ava DuVernay, 2014
Cinematography | Bradford Young

As Film Art moves forward we will be given more opportunities to see female characters written and presented by women. It is interesting to experience the “knee-jerk” reaction of fellow cinephiles when I bring this up. It seems that the majority of people seem to feel it is not all that important or different to have a female vs. male filmmaker. From a technical proficiency standpoint it really does not make a difference. However, good luck at convincing most Big Money producers or film studios that there isn’t. The shift in this perspective is resulting from peer and societal pressures. Sexism and Racism still run the show, but this might be changing. What interests me is seeing how a female filmmaker might be able to bring a more balanced depiction of female characters and their situations.

A great deal more than "a sex comedy" that the film's marketing team led us to believe. Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film. Afternoon Delight Jill Soloway, 2013 Cinematography | Jim Frohna

A great deal more than “a sex comedy” that the film’s marketing team led us to believe.
Juno Temple & Kathryn Hahn deliver potent performances in a vastly under-rated film.
Afternoon Delight
Jill Soloway, 2013
Cinematography | Jim Frohna

Would Ava DuVernay’s Selma have been different if it had been made by a man? A white woman? I suspect so, but Selma was crafted with such a steadfast and sure handed — it is hard to say. Would Jill Soloway’s under-appreciated Afternoon Delight have been different if it had been written/directed by a male filmmaker? I’d say most certainly so. Would Diary of a Teenage Girl have presented themes of sexuality and identity have been handled in a different manner by a male? Would Mia’s frustrations, anger and sexual awakening been explored differently if a man had directed Andrea Arnold’s screenplay for Fish Tank? I’d say most definitely. Or what if we stop and imagine what might have happened if Lynne Ramsay’s husband, Rory Stewart Kenner, had directed their screenplay adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin? Would Michelle Williams’ Margot had received a more typical level of exploration had Sarah Polley not written and directed Take This Waltz? Would a male director had handled Father of My Children in the same way that Mia Hansen-Løve so grimly caring as she was able?

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate. Katie Jarvis Fish Tank Andrea Arnold, 2009 Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

Even brightly painted walls are unable to hide the challenges of a young woman coming of age within a council estate.
Katie Jarvis
Fish Tank
Andrea Arnold, 2009
Cinematography | Robbie Ryan

If we think back to some of the more controversial European films of the past 50 years it brings up an even stronger concern. Imagine if Pier Paolo Pasolini had directed Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter? …A film that still makes both female and male audiences squirm some 40+ years after it was originally released. Try to imagine if Jacques Audiard had directed Claire Denis’ White Material. Actually this might be the true exception to the rule. I do not think there are any filmmakers who think and film anywhere near to the manner in which Denis approaches her distinctive and intimate films.

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working -- who happens to be a woman. Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley FUNNY BUNNY Alison Bagnall, 2015 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An odd sort of buddy film morphs into something very different in the hands of this respected female film artist. And guess what? She secured one of the most interesting American cinematographers working — who happens to be a woman.
Joslyn Jensen / Kentucker Audley
FUNNY BUNNY
Alison Bagnall, 2015
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

Even so, just think what might have happened. A similar exception might rule for both Catherine Breillat and Josephine Decker — both of whom seem to have a very unique and intimate connection to their work. Decker’s voice is still taking form and I think we are approaching an era where it will be allowed to do just that. The same did not happen for the likes of Claudia Weill and Elaine May. Two incredibly gifted artists who had the unluck of making a flop each. Male filmmakers can make a flop movie and move on, the same has not been true for women.

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May's directorial career to an abrupt end. Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty ISHTAR Elaine May, 1987 Cinematography | Vittorio Storaro

Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Gary Marshall would have simply shrugged and moved on to a new project. However all it took was one box office flop to bring Elaine May’s directorial career to an abrupt end.
Dustin Hoffman / Warren Beatty
ISHTAR
Elaine May, 1987
Cinematography |Vittorio Storaro

An even more vexing concern for female artists comes up when we do think of all the inaccuracies of treatment for male filmmakers vs. female directors. Men can misbehave. Does anyone out there think that a female artist would have been allowed to put a cast / crew through emotional tantrums thrown by David O. Russell during the making of I Heart Huckabees? You are living in a make believe reality if you do. You would also be in an equally confused reality if you think a male PEO could have gotten away with this behavior on a Hollywood set. Ironically, the artist who paid the price for Mr. Russell’s bizarre behavior ended up being an innocent bystander. Unlike her co-stars, Isabelle Huppert and Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin refused to sit quietly while Russell blasted them with unprofessional rage-fueled insults.

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.  Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin I Heart Huckabees David O. Russell, 2004 Cinematography | Peter Deming

I guess she should have known she had no right to defend herself and the crew against and unprofessional male director.
Dustin Hoffman / Lily Tomlin
I Heart Huckabees
David O. Russell, 2004
Cinematography | Peter Deming

It was as if the highly respected and skilled actress had made a grave error against Hollywood’s Good ‘Ol Boy Club when she dared to respond to her director’s cruelty. Ms. Tomlin’s film career suffered a great deal due because she was unwilling to sit passively and suffer the indignity of O’Russell’s tyranny. This sad result of a YouTube leak has been little discussed. David O. Russell had already come to blows with George Clooney a few years earlier. Clooney seemed to earn “respect points” for standing up to the bullying. Tomlin did not fare as well. She was largely relegated to playing nightclub gigs. It would take more than a couple of years before she found worthy television / film prospects. Yet David O. Russell continued to excel up The Hollywood Food Chain despite not only his behavior but the box office fail of I Heart Huckabees.

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.  Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub Thou Wast Mild and Lovely Josephine Decker, 2014 Cinematography | Ashley Connor

An experimental, disturbing and fascinating independent film challenged all the rules of a male-dominated art form.
Robert Longstreet / Sophie Traub
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Josephine Decker, 2014
Cinematography | Ashley Connor

However, I’ve gone way off point here. There are a slew of amazing films dealing with the psychology of women. Films that are rightly revered and studied. In no way would I want to discount these films, but it is interesting to think about them from the perspective that they were imagined, written and directed by men. Are these depictions any less valid because women were relegated to the role of “actor” vs. creator of these unforgettable cinematic masterpieces? It is an interesting talking point.

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.  Julianne Moore SAFE Todd Haynes, 1995 Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

A woman plagued by a toxic world or muted oppression? A male director proves he can make films focused on women without error.
Julianne Moore
SAFE
Todd Haynes, 1995
Cinematography | Alex Nepomniaschy

I was recently thinking of four films in particular. I don’t pretend to know the full answer to this hind-sighted reflection. For starters I am not a filmmaker, but most importantly I am a white male. These films were made by professional filmmakers — all of whom were white men.

Millie aims for perfection within a man's nightmare... Shelley Duvall  3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Millie aims for perfection within a man’s nightmare…
Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The first film that crosses my mind regarding this line of questioning is one of my personal favorite movies: Robert Altman’s 3 Women. I’m not sure this is a good film to discuss in this vein as the entire film can be ascribed to dream-logic. Altman never made it a secret that the entire film was born of a personal nightmare. It is also no secret that this incredible examination of identity and surrealism was largely formed by the participation of all three actors in the title roles. This is most particularly true of Shelley Duvall.

The battle for identity... Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977 Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

The battle for identity…
Sissy Spacek / Shelley Duvall
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977
Cinematography | Charles Rosher Jr.

Almost all of the film’s trajectories emanate from Duvall’s Millie‘s actions. Another aspect of this film that more or less eliminates it from this topic is the fact that the entire film does feel like a manifestation of male-based fears about women. This is not to say that 3 Women is not a fully potent vision of identity horror, but it does not actually seem to present itself entirely based female psychology. This wildly experimental dark comedy morphs into one of the more disturbing films you are likely to see. It is full of female energy, but it never feels as if it is trying to make a statement about anything other than these three very specific three female characters.

The second film I think of this respect is a more likely candidate for this type of analysis: John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Experiencing a John Cassavetes film often leads the viewer to the mistaken idea that every aspect of what is being seen is an improvised experimental film. This is never the case.

A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974

A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

Cassavetes was an articulate film writer as well as director. He had a very specific story to tell and he told it in his unique visionary way. Certainly not one to run from collaboration and open to ideas — he was nearly always set on how and what he wanted his films to say. He was blessed to share his life with one of the most important film actors to ever breathe, Gena Rowlands. However it is a major mistake to think that as Mabel, Rowlands was free-forming her dialog as she went along. It is both to her credit as an actor and her husband’s credit as a filmmaker that it feels that way. Even Rowlands’s Mabel odd and/or quirky hand gestures and ticks were already thought out in the filmmaker’s head. Do a Google and you will find images of Cassavetes acting out the hand movements and gestures for Rowlands to incorporate into her performance. It is also somewhat crucial to remember that Cassavetes main interest in his film storytelling was the pursuit of love. Yet it would seem difficult for even this great filmmaker to not note that there was something removed from that going on here.

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.  A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

Seeking intimacy and human warmth, but only finding guilt and confusion.
A One Night Stand and Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

A Woman Under the Influence works on all levels and remains a fascinating and deeply disturbing screen capture of a woman in full-tilt emotional breakdown. How or if she is full able to “heal” and return to life is more than a little ambiguous. What is clear in the film is that she is loved and loves, but this might not be enough for her to survive the life in which she has found herself. And this is one of the primary reasons this 1974 film continues to feel alive and real. The hair styles, the decor, the cars and clothing may all be dated — but the situations all feel profoundly current.

Mabel is not well. She is losing her grip on sanity. Something that the film never bluntly states but shows is that she is also deteriorating in imposed isolation, loneliness and suffocating within what begins to feel like a sort of familial pathology. The Longhetti Family is not well. The working-class husband / father is over-worked and seems more than a little under-educated. With the exception of a paycheck, he seems to leave all other responsibilities to his wife, Mabel. She is left alone with three children in a sort of lower-middle class hell.

"All of a sudden, I miss everyone..." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence  John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

“All of a sudden, I miss everyone…”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

She loves and adores her children, but they are all she has in the way of connection to the world. She may or may not be a bit smarter than her husband, but it does not really matter. We can see that she is overwhelmed. We can also see that her husband hasn’t a clue as to why or how to help her. He takes to what can only be described as domestic abuse toward his wife. He ultimately pulls his children into emotionally-damaging situations and allows indulgences into inappropriate behavior as a father. Mabel may not be a reliable parent, but she seems to be trying harder to set a better example than her husband. The 21st Century reaction to Peter Falk’s Nick is to take offense and become angry. However his performance and the film itself is so stunningly human, it is almost impossible to dislike Nick. We know he cares and is simply lost. The resulting film is powerful, sad and oddly inspiring in that it offers us a bit of hope for this woman.

When film acting no longer feels like "fiction." Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence John Cassavetes, 1974 Cinematography | Al Ruban

When film acting no longer feels like “fiction.”
Gena Rowlands
A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974
Cinematography | Al Ruban

There was and will only ever be one John Cassavetes. A Woman Under the Influence is cinematic masterwork from every angle.

But have you ever wondered what this movie might have been like if a woman had directed it?

Would we be given a bit more information regarding those gestures or movements to understand the pressures of both the inner and outer worlds of Mabel? Would Nick have had more room to understand or even less? Would he have become a savior or more of a victimizer? When it comes to A Woman Under the Influence, one thing that was discussed when it was first released has come much more clearly to the forefront with the passage of time: there is an idea presented which is far less ambiguous today as was back in the 1970s. As viewers we do not really know if it is Mabel who is having the real problem here. Mabel appears to be more a victim of circumstance than one of mental illness. Is The Woman ill or is she simply a experiencing the logical result of a life so severely limited and oppressed? Perhaps it is Nick who really needs help. Mabel just might need to demand more freedom or walk away. Would the entire situation of this family be illuminated in a different way had it been in the hands of female filmmaker? Honestly, I’m not sure I really want to know…

The female psyche deconstructed... PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The female psyche deconstructed…
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966

The third and final film is also one of the greatest films ever made. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a milestone work of art for more reasons than I’d be comfortable attempting to articulate. This largely experimental film is less about the core of Human Identity as it is about the twisted manipulation of identity by one of the two female characters. Bibi Andersson plays Alma. A young and inexperienced Psych Nurse assigned the task of caring for a highly respected stage and film actress played with equal mastery by Liv Ullmann. This is a Surrealist take on human cruelty and ideas of identity. It is also female-centric. Yet as much as it is concerned with female psychology, it is equally concerned with experimenting against the normal conventions of cinematic storytelling. Ingmar Bergman and his legendary cinematographer, Sven Nyqvist are both concerned with conveying ideas through image and editing even more than what the two actors present through performance and dialogue.

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?  Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Too fragile to handle the world, so maybe she wants to try and manipulate it?
Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We see both women react to their respective worlds and situations. Soon enough we see them react to each other. In uncomfortable silence as her patient has withdrawn from speech and human contact, Alma begins to find herself in the unique position in having a person of note who serves as her private audience. She begins to share her deepest and most intimate secrets to her Elisbet. One doesn’t need a degree in psychology to realize that Liv Ullmann’s character is somehow using her nurse for her own perverse needs and pleasures. We might think that it is the patient who is falling apart, but viewers quickly realize that the character who truly comes to the end of her mental and emotional rope is the nurse.

Silent prey or captive audience?  Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson  PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Silent prey or captive audience?
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

One of the splinters the film that makes is truly jolting, but it is never fully clear as to why. Was this always going to happen or has Ullmann’s Elisabet pushing buttons and limits for her own sick gain? I suspect most of us would agree that this revolutionary bit of filmmaking is at least a partial off-spring from Freudian thought. In fact, it seems that Bergman was playing off Freud’s idea of both primary and normal narcissism. Persona almost seems to be constructing itself off Freud’s self-titled definitions of Demential Praecox and Paraphrenics (sp?) — Elisabet appears to an off-shoot example of Schizophrenia who is incapable of love or loving. Alma is the hysterical woman unable to escape the grasp of a sociopathic woman hellbent on ruining her. It would be irresponsible and lazy to dismiss Persona on sexist grounds as it comes from a very specific point in time and achieved a whole new sort of cinematic language. Persona is still a gut punch to the senses. In many ways, Ingmar Bergman’s film remains ahead of time. However it is firmly grounded in the world of Art Horror or Psychological Thriller. It is not and can’t be weakened by ideas that we now might deem as outmoded.

But it does beg a bit of examination regarding the ways in which Bergman crafted his two female characters? It is possibly unnecessary, but curious to wonder what a female film artist might have done with the ideas of female human beings in this situation. Would a female or a Feminist-perspective have changed this film for the different or better? Would Alma‘s memory of her sexual exploit be articulated differently? Would Elisabet‘s reactions and actions have been different? Would a sickly little boy reach out for the female faces or would he be replaced by a little girl? Would a female perspective lead us further than Bergman’s conclusion?

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act... Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Sharing secrets turns into a mentally dangerous act…
Liv Ullmann / Bibi Andersson
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Would it all still break the film strip?

Perhaps of all male filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman was the most interested in female-centric movies. He is not alone. Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Woody Allen and David Lynch are just a few of the white male filmmakers who pursue the stories and even the POV of female characters. Much of their work feels right, but how to know? Can a man really ever know what it feels like for a girl?

Or perhaps more on point: can a male film artist really ever know what it is like to be a woman? …much less even partially understand what it is like to be in her head?

Judging by many films, it would seem more than a little possible.

Intent to harm or heal? Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann PERSONA Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Intent to harm or heal?
Bibi Andersson / Liv Ullmann
PERSONA
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

We have yet to have an equal opportunity to experience female film art perspective in equal measure. Let’s hope that we see and hear more from Female Film Artists and Women In Media as we move forward.  It has never been more important to support films made by women and people of color.

Aren’t we all pretty much bored with seeing the vast majority of movies limited to the white male perspective?

Matty Stanfiled, 1.19.2016

 

I have been reading and hearing about Marco Ferreri’s notorious 1973 film, La Grande Bouffe,  since adulthood.

Le Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973

Le Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973

Yet I had never had the opportunity to see it until the folks at Arrow Films saw fit to restore and release the film. Even well over 42 years since it debuted at The Cannes Film Festival, this film is still notorious. A simple “google” reveals that Ingrid Bergman tossed her cookies trying to watch it when she was sitting on The Cannes Jury. Marcello Mastroianni’s then lover, Catherine Deneuve, did not speak to him for two weeks after she saw the film. Despite some controversy, the movie was received well be most critics. In fact, Marco Ferreri tied with Jean Eustache and won Cannes’ FIPRESCI Prize. It was also nominated for The Palme d’Or. However, nearly all the positive reviews acted as a warning to the film’s admittedly grotesque use of food, bodily functions and sexuality. There was also an on-going argument in France and among cinephiles as to whether or not this film was bombastic provocation or bold metaphorical satire. Another argument centered on whether the film could be labeled as “Surrealism” or “Absurdism.”

There can be no denying that Le Grande Bouffe strikes a off-key chords of disgust and repulsion.  At the same time, a viewer would be hard-pressed to argue that this strange movie fails to entertain. Most importantly, it does have something to say about the state of society that remains incredibly valid all these years later.

Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Philippe Noiret and Michel Piccoli play friends who have grown bored with life, but they have a plan! La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Philippe Noiret and Michel Piccoli play friends who have grown bored with life, but they have a plan!
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Gathering a spectacular cast of mid-1970’s actors (Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret and Ugo Tognhzzi) together as a group of wealthy men who have lost the desire to live. More to the point, wealthy men who have allowed respective desires to form the focal point of life. And desire alone is certainly not a healthy or sustaining “diet.” This of course ties into the metaphor of consumerism.

As a successful and renowned chef, Ugo Tognhzzi, has spent his life perfecting his dishes to the point that he no longer finds joy in the making or the eating of food. Michel Piccoli is a successful television producer and journalist who seems to have lost interest in what he does. Philippe Noiret may be a respected and powerful judge, but his life has been spent interpreting law and handing out verdicts. Any hope for something deeper appears to have been sapped by an on-going inappropriate sexual relationship with his childhood nanny. It becomes clear that this nanny has been sexually abusing him since he was a child. Sexuality and intimacy clearly lead Philippe to muted place of discomfort. Most explored is the dilemma facing Marcello Mastroianni’s character.

It is Marcello who insists on hiring some prostitutes to join the friends for "the fun." With a hooker's panty as an eye patch -- Let the eating and fornication begin! Marcello Mastroianni La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

It is Marcello who insists on hiring some prostitutes to join the friends for “the fun.” With a hooker’s panty as an eye patch — Let the eating and fornication begin!
Marcello Mastroianni
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

A successful airline pilot, this man focuses all energy on pursuing sexual conquests and resulting pleasures. Sex is of utmost importance to Marcello, but it has become a hallow experience which seems to be heading the way of impotence.

These four friends gather with the plan to fully indulge in a hedonistic series of feasts with the goal of literally eating themselves to death. Enter an idea of “Surrealism” which is not really accurate. While it might be very hard, in theory an individual could eat him/herself to death. Yes, it might be very difficult but it can be done. The film’s core plot is less Surreal and more Absurdist. Le Grande Bouffe is also satire at it’s most dark and revolting. The film is very focused on the human body and digestion.

Ah, delicious! Michel Piccoli examines the head of a newly butchered hog. La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Ah, delicious!
Michel Piccoli examines the head of a newly butchered hog.
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Quite literal in its use of The Scatacological, The Big Feast is filled with fart sound effects, swelling bellies, burbs, vomiting, exploding toilets, plumbing and colon ruptures. Uncontrolled defecation and farting are less funny when presented so graphically and for so long. In many ways Ferreri is testing his audiences’ patience and will to make it through his movie.

Mastroianni’s character’s life focus is sex. As soon as the men settle in to the ornate house where they plan to kill themselves, he decides he must have sex or the “fun” of gorging themselves to death will not be as rewarding. Enter the prostitutes and the friends’ mutually shared view of women as objects.

Appreciating the nude art on the grounds... La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Appreciating the nude art on the grounds…
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

These men have essentially no real healthy connection to women. They are playthings with very little else to offer. Marco Ferreri has cast some truly beautiful actresses as the film’s prostitutes. It is hard to know if any of these actors can act because they are given very little to do other than to offer their bodies to the men. Of course, we are never allowed to forget that this is not “fun” for the women. They are there for the money. It is interesting to note that it the prostitutes who quickly grasp what is going on amongst these friends. These women have no concern regarding their clients’ macabre plan. They just want to be paid.

Late 1960’s/Early 1970’s Euro-Sex Symbol, Solange Blondeau, is given the most to do and she does it well. Disgusted by the amount of food she sees, she voices complaint at the lunacy because she is almost ill just watching the eating not out of any concern. She and another prostitute briefly discuss the unimportance of men. Solange goes along for the ride.

"What is that?" Marcello seems more interested in the manifold as phallus and food than Solange's beauty. Mastroianni, Blondeau and intrusive manifold... Le Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

“What is that?”
Marcello seems more interested in the manifold as phallus and food than Solange’s beauty.
Mastroianni, Blondeau and intrusive manifold…
Le Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

When Marcello brings her into the garage to show her a beautiful antique car, she is less annoyed by his use of a manifold as phallus than she is by the food he forces her to eat. The scene is intentionally gross. There is nothing erotic here. But there is another invited guest to these friends’ Nihilistic big feasts, a seemingly “proper” elementary school teacher. This was Andrea Ferreol’s film debut. She is positively brilliant in this film and offers an interestingly odd twist to the tale.

It may not be clear if the teacher understands, but there is nothing “appropriate” or remotely innocent about her. She quickly seduces Philippe’s judge. She cleverly morphs from sweet school teacher to zaftig Sex Kitten. Not only eager to have sex with the judge, she is more than willing to serve as erotic object for all four men. Andrea Ferreol is stunningly beautiful, but not in the conventional way of the prostitutes. Interestingly, it is Andrea who Marco Ferreri attaches cinematic eroticism. It is actually only with her that he indulges in 1970’s Euro-Eroticism.

Andrea Ferreol gladly offers up her lovely body to Marcello Mastroianni. Despite her beauty and willingness to play his games, he has lost the ability to participate. The film is very clear that this is not her fault. Andrea Ferreol & Mastroianni La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Andrea Ferreol gladly offers up her lovely body to Marcello Mastroianni. Despite her beauty and willingness to play his games, he has lost the ability to participate. The film is very clear that this is not her fault.
Andrea Ferreol & Mastroianni
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

A pale, curvaceous and inviting bounty of flesh, Andrea is the true sexual feast for these men. Ever game for anything each man wants to try or do, Andrea is also craving the food and the sex. In one of the more darkly comic and equally disgusting scenes, Andrea forces herself on an ailing Michel. As Michel moans in pain Andrea rides hard and fast. As he submits so do his bowels. It is deeply repulsive but inexplicably funny. Later she will allow Ugo to use her shapely buttocks to form a huge tart. She also attempts to satisfy Marcello’s erotic needs with little luck. As inappropriate as everything is, there is something to be said about the fact that Ferreri celebrates Andrea’s body rather than make fun of it.

However, there is something sinister about Andrea. Aside from the fact that she is not bothered by the sight, sounds, smells of stomach-churning bodily functions — she is ever eating though never to the point of the extreme as her hosts. She is also forever wanting to sex it up. Most disturbingly, she seems to take great joy in assisting these men in their pursuit of death by gluttony.  She begins to take a sort of psychopathic joy in it. Andrea is fully committed to assisting these men on their mission. Andrea Ferreol is easily the best performance in the film. And it is completely fearless.

Look! More food! EAT THIS! La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Look! More food! EAT THIS!
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Suffice to say, this is a very strange movie. It is also almost epic in length. It runs over two hours. This is a long film. It is certainly not for everyone. However, there is a great deal that is worthy here.

While there is most certainly a societal commentary being expressed, in the end friendship and shared sadness seem to be almost as essential as the societal aspects. Amidst all the folly and nauseating actions, the filmmaker succeeds in demonstrating the love shared by these four men. Ultimately, they stand united. A very wrong and warped idea emerges that despite all of their faults, these four men have each other. It is an unexpected bit of human tenderness that manages to surface. No matter how one wants to find meaning, this film is well made, provocative, energetic and crudely funny.

Somehow Marco Ferreri film makes us actually care about these sad men. That in of itself is a major feat.

Uh, oh. A colon rupture! Um, yes. It is shown. La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Uh, oh. A colon rupture! Um, yes. It is shown.
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

If I had to offer an easy summary of this early 1970’s film it would be to imagine Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover as an obvious comedy and minus vengeance.  Actually, I’d be willing to bet that Greenaway’s film would not exist had Ferreri’s film never been made. There are a number of similarities. Greenaway had already cast Andrea Ferreol in his earlier brilliant film, A Zed and Two Noughts. Interestingly, Greenaway’s NC-17 film had an easier time in the late 1980’s than Ferreri’s film in the early 1970’s. The film was heavily censored and even banned. Locating a full cut of this film has been difficult until Arrow Films’ recent restoration.

Food, Sex & Human Cruelty The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover Peter Greenaway, 1989 Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Food, Sex & Human Cruelty
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Peter Greenaway, 1989
Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Of course, Greenaway had a far more crucial political satire in mind at the time he made The Cook. While Marco Ferreri’s societal commentary is aimed at consumerism and the vacancy of wealthy men, Peter Greenaway was intellectually crafting a gut-punching critique of Thatcher’s England the human cruelty that resulted within it. It is the better film, but in many ways it is even harder to watch.

Michael Nyman’s iconic musical score for this infamous 1989 film. It is a major player in Greenaway’s film. La Grande Bouffe also offers a surprising importance on it’s musical score. And the score is totally mis-matched to our perceptions of what we anticipate in the way of a musical film score. Philippe Sarde composed a truly lovely score for the twisted La Grande Bouffe. It is music of bittersweet lush romanticism.

Interestingly, Sarde’s score makes sense.

"Why eat when there is no hunger?" Michel Piccoli & Solange Blondeau La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

“Why eat when there is no hunger?”
Michel Piccoli & Solange Blondeau
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

And here lies the major challenge of La Grande Bouffe: Is the ‘pay-off‘ worth the investment of time to watch it?

Yes and no. I think the answer to this question can only be answered on an individual basis. Despite the unpleasantness, I think this is a well-crafted and important film. That being stated, approach with caution. It is rare that I agree with the MPAA, but La Grande Bouffe is deserving of the “NC-17” rating that it has been assigned.

And a tip of the hat to Arrow Films of the UK as they continue to raise their bar on restoration and distribution beyond region restrictions.

La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973

La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973

Their job is every bit on par with The Criterion Collection. I suspect that we are going to see an interesting turn in the world of Art House Boutique Labels as Arrow Films continues to have a more current perspective on Film Art while The Criterion Collection seems to be continuing to lose touch with their younger audiences’ cinematic interests. Do not mis-read me. TCC is going nowhere, but their recent choices for film restoration/distribution have been more than a little off. Arrow Films seems to be taking appropriate aim at Film Art that appeals to a growing population of younger cinephiles who have interest beyond the Film Masters.

Matty Stanfield, 11.5.15

 

 

 

Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession was initially unleashed to its first audience 35 years ago at The Cannes Film Festival. The film and Isabelle Adjani’s performance was and remains the stuff of legend.

"Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness." Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981

“Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness.”
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981

She received the festival’s Best Actress Award. The film itself had a profound and lasting impact on Cannes Film Festival audiences.  Many film critics present appeared to like it, but were unable to explain what it was. It defied genre. While many critics liked it, almost as many hated it. Not too long after rumors began to circulate that Adjani had suffered a nervous breakdown which many blamed on the pressures of playing the film’s lead. Initially it seemed that Adjani was eager to promote the film. As the film began to screen in Europe, audience reactions ranged from “confused” to “repulsed” to “angry.”

The Absence of Faith or The Conflict of having it?  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The Absence of Faith or The Conflict of having it?
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

As French audiences began to dwindle at an alarming rate, Adjani’s attitude toward her role, the movie and the director became critical. It didn’t seem to be a “marketing ploy” — and if it was, Andrzej Zulawski was not happy about it. While I’m unaware of the actor ever directly blaming Zulawski or her role in Possession for what appears to have been a very real breakdown, she never gave a definite answer. It was clear that Adjani was initially eager to work with Zulawski. It was clear she fully understood what she needed to do as the character.

"Do you believe in God?" Isabelle Adjani appears to moan to the heavens than to pray.  Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Do you believe in God?”
Isabelle Adjani appears to moan to the heavens than to pray.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

If one tries to sort the “gossip” from “truth” — it becomes clear that Adjani gave herself over to this particular role unlike she had ever done before or since. Despite the honor and the acclaim she received for her performance, Adjani seems to have opted to distance herself from the movie as quickly as possible. Since it’s brief release in France, she has never spoken of the experience beyond the implication that she felt she had been manipulated by Zulawski.

Isabelle Adjani  Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The one thing she did state has remained firmly intertwined with Possession‘s history:

Zulawski, Bruno Nuytten (Cinematographer and soon-to-married to the film’s lead actress), Adjani and the crew were assembled under the infamously long and deep passenger tunnel beneath U-Platz der Luftbrücke Subway Station in Berlin. The film’s special effects crew had just fitted Adjani with surprisingly realistic fluid-filled bags. It is doubtful that anyone knew that Isabel Adjani was about to go far and beyond her director’s expectations. Just before Andrzej uttered “Aktion!” Adjani approached him and asked how she should approach the violent seizure as described in her script. He thought about it and was not completely sure how to articulate what he wanted, but the first words that came to his mind and through his lips to Adjani’s ears were essentially that this scene should look like a tribal sort of violent dance.

Reportedly Adjani thought this over for a minute. Turned to her director once more for guidance that was a bit more specific.

“Fuck the air.”

It was with this very direct response Isabelle Adjani would create what would soon become and remains one of – if not the most disturbing scenes in cinematic history. What Adjani does far below the Berlin subway system is almost impossible to describe. I think the aspect of Adjani’s convulsive “dance” is that it never feels false. You don’t need to have ever been to Berlin to realize that she is writhing and slamming about the dirty walls, floor and the air of a real space. This is no film set. It is profoundly repulsive and fascinating all at once. And just as you think this “fit” is over, Adjani begins to drain her rigged bags. Suddenly the entire scene somehow manages to amp-up to a whole new level of horror.

One of if not the most deeply disturbing moments in cinematic history.  Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

One of if not the most deeply disturbing moments in cinematic history.
Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The most horrific and disgusting aspect is not the impact of the lo-fi but highly effective bags — it is Adjani’s face, eyes and the sounds she emits as the infamous scene comes to its end.

Distributors pushed Possession out to Europe with a great deal of hesitation. It failed to attract audiences but it was a most definite part of pop culture conversation. It was banned by a large number of European townships. Most unlucky, the UK banned it before it could even find a screen. It would be another 2 years before Possession screened ever so briefly in Manhattan. Another year or so later the film was secured by several different distributors who edited the film to make it shorter, to censor the more “offensive” moments and to re-construct the entire film. Several different versions were released on VHS. These versions make no sense. Yet something remained that made a younger generation more curious. As bad as those VHS versions were, a cult-following was born. It would not be until 1999 that an “uncut” version of Possession would finally find its way to DVD.  It didn’t take long for word to get out that it was not the version as Zulawski intended. It has barely been a year since Mondo-Vision out of Irvine, CA fully restored and issued the actual full length version to DVD/Blu-ray. It has been the first “hit” Mondo-Vision has issued.

"I'm afraid of myself, because I'm the maker of my own evil." Isabelle Adjani with knife Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I’m afraid of myself, because I’m the maker of my own evil.”
Isabelle Adjani with knife
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Even with the passing of 35 years, Possession remains unaged and is still upsetting the viewers.

The most casual mention of it among fellow cinephiles incites repulsion, annoyance, unexpected emotions resulting in adamant claims of misogyny and cinematic atrocity. In 1999, I made the mistake of suggesting a Andrzej Zulawski Retrospective at a film festival board meeting. My suggestion was resoundingly turned-down. I would later chat with several of the board members who were particularly frustrated with my suggestion. I was disappointed to discover that not a single opinion was valid. None of them had ever seen it. One key member of the board told me, “I don’t need to see it. I’ve heard about it for years and it will never screen here.”

Perhaps the most almost violent reaction I’ve witness came from an esteemed and infamous filmmaker herself. Actually she has probably upset as many audiences as Zulawski. She dismissed Possession as  “pretentious meaningless human cruelty disguised as Art House Cinema.” One particularly brave soul pointed out that most of her films could be explained in the same way. I am not sure if he said this to provoke her or to make a point. But her face took on a shade of red I had never seen. She stormed away muttering something about the need for a cigarette.

Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

A week later I found out she hadn’t actually ever seen it. Since then she has and her opinion has taken a dramatic turn. It is rather funny that she now seems convinced that she always knew Possession was a work of “breathtaking cinematic art far ahead of its time!”

It would be unfair to expect an audience to to have an understanding of the artist’s identity or a grasp of how this artist’s identity was formed. The art needs to be able to stand on its own. One should never have to research to access a work of art. There must always be something within it that either entertains or resonates to an audience. But art would be so boring if all of it only served to entertain or resonate. From time to time an artist creates work that is deeply challenging. It is at that time the audience must adjust their eyes to gain more perspective on what is being shown. In the world of Film Art, this is often the case. Not every member of the audience will feel the need to engage with a film beyond the superficial or visual perspectives.

"Because you say "I" for me."  Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Because you say “I” for me.”
Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

But I am one of many who marvel at what a filmmaker sometimes achieves. While we are entertained to a point and we might feel a pull toward resonation — it is not always so easy to identify the “points” or the aspects that try to resonate.

This is especially true when approaching a filmmaker like Andrzej Zulawski. Most of his films are beyond “visual.” Often his films take on an almost epic scale of the visceral.  This is especially true of his films prior to 1999. Zulawski films seem propelled by a frantic intensity that fuses with his equally visual sense which highlights the metaphorical or allegorical aspects of his stories. To fully encage with is work the viewer needs to gain some insight into his life and what has formed his view/philosophy. This allows access to a myriad of meanings lurking just behind or within one of his characters. Most importantly the viewer secures a  perspective on why his films tend to illicit an often mixed bag of reactions. Understanding more about him allows the audience to tap into why what we see matters to us.

As I sit here and attempt to pursue a “request” to articulate my opinion of Andrzej Zulawski, his film Possession and the opposition it continues to generate,  I suspect it is important to note my reality.  All of the factors that have formed my identity is what continually draws me into his specific cinematic world. My fear of narcissism, pity and losing what I think is best called “anonymity” prevent me from sharing what I’m inclined to share. Beside this self-clarification “need” might be beneficial here, but it might just be a “desire” that would work in opposition to what I’ve been asked to convey. It seems like such a basic fact, but I’m often surprised how many people fail to realize that what we see in art is largely derived from what we bring to it. In the case of Film Art, what we project mingles with what is projected on the screen. It is a fundamental understanding of how we relate to art.

Anna coldly discusses philosophy as she pushes a child to hold Allongé. She seems unaware of the childs sounds of pain and horror. It appears to be a ballet lesson, but it sounds like a rape.  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Anna coldly discusses philosophy as she pushes a child to hold Allongé. She seems unaware of the childs sounds of pain and horror. It appears to be a ballet lesson, but it sounds like a rape.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Yet this core concept escapes a number of people. Suffice to say, that if life has presented a number of fucked-up challenges in life — what resonates or draws you into a art will be very different from someone who has been blessed with easier or more reasonable challenges. This lucky individual is less likely to be immediately drawn into darker examinations of the human experience. It does not mean that this lucky individual should avoid these challenging works, but they might have to work a bit harder to access them.

The slow emergence of “re-evaluation” of Andrzej Zulawski and Possession has been a long time in coming.  In large part this is due to Mondo-Vision’s beautiful restoration work on some of his most vital work. Following a successful run of Possession at New York’s Film Forum in late 2011, two organizations decided to hold retrospectives of the director’s work. If there were any concerns when the Brooklyn Academy of Music held their retrospective in 2012, they vanished as soon as tickets went on sale.

"There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you." Isabelle Adjani shares a secret with Heinz Bennent Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you.”
Isabelle Adjani shares a secret with Heinz Bennent
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

BAM titled their retrospective “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski.” This did not rest easily with the filmmaker. It was because of this title he chose not to attend or participate.

Film Comment‘s Margaret Barton-Fumo spoke with Andrzej Zulawski and asked him how he felt about the BAM’s title, “This is the exact reason I am here in Warsaw and not in New York. I hated it so profoundly, it sounded so base—and I thank you for asking. 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.”

It is of great import that he takes offense at the use of the word “hysteria” to describe his work. The word has not only taken on a pejorative meaning, it is a politically unethical word choice.  It is so easy to disagree. Both of the central male and female characters seem to be in a state of frantic panic which “hysteria” makes perfect sense. One on of the amazing feats of Adjani’s performance is that she seems to ampying her level of frantically shrill and manic energy up with each passing scene. When we first see “Anna” she appears tensely coiled-up — trying hard to suppress something. A few moments later she has uncoiled and emotions and panic jump from 1 to 10. It is a high wire act without a net in which Isabelle Adjani somehow manages to escalate her “hysteria” well out of measurable range. If the maximum scale is 10, Adjani seems to be closer to 100 by the mid-point of the film. The important difference that offends Zulawski is that he is using a concept of “hysteria” to criticize what causes it. The work is frantic about what culture perceives as “hysteria” — it is unfair to sum up the total of his work to “hysterical excess.” Baron-Fumo was able to discuss the film and the fact that the filmmaker had always called Possession his most “personal” film.

"Love isn't something you can just switch from channel to channel." Sam Neill contemplates the loss of his wife. Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Love isn’t something you can just switch from channel to channel.”
Sam Neill contemplates the loss of his wife.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Zulawski went into great detail of how the disintegration of his marriage seemed to mirror what he saw in Eastern Europe at that time. His response to Baron-Fumo’s questions are exactly as he is — open, honest and extremely articulate. For the filmmaker, Possession is a film he still thinks about in relation to what it means outside his own very private experience. It is clear that he is aware it carries a universal story that morphs into something completely unique, but he is not comfortable in fully addressing this aspect.

"For the first time, you look vulgar to me." A married couple on the verge of... Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“For the first time, you look vulgar to me.”
A married couple on the verge of…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

His on-going struggle to reflect beyond his 1981 film remains too close to the bone to claim ownership beyond what he sees as a tragic experience that happened in his life. It is clear that he would prefer to dismiss the concepts of metaphors, allegories, horror and surrealism — but Zulawski is far too intelligent not to realize that those concepts exist within the frames of the movie.

No matter where they go, the wall separates Anna and Mark from potential.  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography

No matter where they go, the wall separates Anna and Mark from potential.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography

While he recoils at the word “hysteria” and its origin as misogynistic and psychologically confused attitude toward women. He is equally repulsed at the idea of referring to his work as “excessive.” He does understand the confusion his cinematic world creates. He is self-aware. He continues to feel it essential that the audience understand how these earlier films are rooted in his own experience.

The first half of his filmmaking career is intensely experimental. This visionary and challenging use of cinema seems to be reaching for that idea of compulsive beauty or psychic automatism almost as André Breton defined it in his Surrealist Manifesto. Almost. I am not only uncomfortable in putting too much surrealist emphasis on his work — I suspect that the links to Berton’s philosophy are purely accidental. Andrzej Zulawski makes his own rules and he ends up breaking a lot of unstated “rules” related to depicting “reality.” Zulawski seems to be creating new “rules” as it is difficult to find any level of “the predictable” as he leads us through a perverted idea of “reality.” This is a world that it wound-up in the environment, culture, repression and oppression to which this artist was born. The challenges he experienced formed him into a powerful artist whose vision pushes beyond the realm of anticipated boundaries. In the world of these early films, characters are forever fighting and clawing at reality of world that undervalues the individual as well as the ability to live the life they want to live. They become both victim and victimizer.

"I can't exist by myself..." Doppelgänger or projection? Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I can’t exist by myself…”
Doppelgänger or projection?
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

This is true of several of his films, but most certainly true of his infamously 1996 film,  Szamanka (She-Shaman) — a film that confused and shocked as much as it entertained. It is also found in the neon-drenched, adrenaline fueled kinetic and insanely unhinged power of 1985’s  L’Amour braque/Mad Love. This loose re-interpretation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot retains a vital piece of experimental cinema — and those who see it now will realize that much of what they thought was “original” in American mainstream cinema was really directly borrowed from L’Amour braque. Christopher Nolan or Kathryn Bigelow, anyone? But it is Possession that must reflects the imagination and perspective of an artist formed through the fires of a government intent on suppressing and oppressing the individuals caught within it.

Andrzej Zulawski was in 1940 Poland. The great nephew of writer Jerzy Zulawski whose The Lunar Trilogy, it almost seems predictable that Andrzej as Film Artist was pre-destined to clash with the Polish government. He studied the art of film in the world of 1950’s Paris, but returned to Poland to establish himself as an artist. He achieved fame in Poland, but that fame was tied more to the controversy of censorship than art. Eventually he opted to leave his native country in 1972 for France. He quickly established himself as a filmmaker of note. As it can easily be understood, I doubt he has ever gotten over the level of despair he felt as his artistic voice was continually muted, defeated and wasted by his homelands’ government. In France his work was and remains highly regarded. 1975’s L’Important c’est d’aimerThat Most Important Thing: Love remains a classic and beloved film.

But no one was prepared for what he unveiled at The Cannes Film Festival in 1981.

Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

I can easily write “a review” of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession on RottenTomatoes, IMDB and Letterboxd. Assigning a rating and a quick review is simple. I have done that. As far as I am concerned Possession is a cinematic masterpiece. The challenge is slip into the movie’s frantic energy, darkness and apocalyptic / nihilistic nightmare and still avoid giving out “spoilers.” Because the whole point of the “request” to create this post is to possibly spur more people to see it. And if you did see it and didn’t like it, maybe this post will lead you to “re-evaluate” what you saw.

There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s notorious and brilliantly insane film. And these meaning are not limited to the director’s sole opinion. He knows this.

On the most superficial level Possession is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to the psycho-sexual.

From another perspective that directly ties to it’s creator’s intent, it is a depiction of the devastation, rage, despair and horror which divorce can cause for wife, husband and child. The tragic implications of a family destroyed takes the form of of a surreal and metaphorical crisis of identity. As the husband fights to keep the marriage together he only manages to “twist the knife of already fixed pain” for both himself and his wife. The wife slips into a full-tilt conflict over “the auto-piolt” implications of motherhood and deep need to rebel against repression and isolation her marriage has provided.

Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

As the husband slips into a sort of existential stupor, his wife seeks out sexual validation and the intense need for connection that very quickly leads the audience into the realm of repulsive horror. A horror in which the wife seeks to replace her spouse with something of her own creation. As the husband begins to climb out of his stupor, he starts to sense the implications of his wife’s choice. He tries to protect their son but is faced with his own challenge. His need to recapture his spouse leads him into a less violent but equally disturbing attempt to replace his wife. Of course the most tragic aspect of the situation is their child. He becomes nothing more than a vague symbol to both Anna and Mark.

From another point of view, and this is the one I apply, Possession is a masterful articulation of the dire implications and consequences of forcing identity/identities into a tiny box not of her/his/it’s own design. Under what amounts to mind-numbing surveillance, control, oppression, repression and judgement — the identity/identities are pushed to the point of insanity. A tiny box is not an appropriate home for a human. It is an even more insurmountable task to contain marriage, parenthood, desire, expression, anger, sex and love into a tiny box. Rebellion must occur. But it will not be a sane rebel who emerges. It will be an outrageous blood thirsty psychotic who comes out of that box seeking vengeance, power and a misplaced understanding of love. What comes out of this boxed world is a perversion of humanity. And it is not a human perversion. It is an inflicted perversion created by the very “entity” that creates, seals and surveils the box.

"He's very tired. He made love to me all night." Isabelle Adjani and her spousal replacement. Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten The Creature by Carlo Rambaldi

“He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.”
Isabelle Adjani and her spousal replacement.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten
The Creature by Carlo Rambaldi

It really doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s  Possession. When the viewer applies thought to the extreme horrors we are shown, the film works from any vantage point.

It goes without saying that Possession is not for all tastes. It most certainly is not for the the faint of heart or the squeamish. And it would be child abuse to allow a child to watch this movie. It is equally important to understand that should you not be shocked, offended, repulsed or even a bit amused by some or most of what you see — Zulawski has failed. It is Andrzej Zulawski’s motivational intent to upset the viewer.  The challenging and disturbing nature of Possession is fact. But it is a mistake to think this film is perverse, misogynistic or meaningless. This film is wrought with meaning and it is a critique / study of why human beings can become perverse or insane.

Love struggles against  tierney Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Love struggles against tierney
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

To deny Possession a place on the shelf of Cinematic Masterpiece within the context of “experimental” would be short-sighted.

Andrzej Zulawski’s cinematic artistry and Possession offer no way out. You have no choice. Both he and his iconic 1981 film refuse to be forgotten.  Possession is true Film Art. And, if anything, it’s validity has never been more potentially viable than now. As we move further into the 21st Century the challenges of individual freedoms, privacy and the ability to control our own lives seem to be mounting against us.

The Oppressed and Repressed invert against themselves. Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The Oppressed and Repressed invert against themselves.
Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Just because the Berlin Wall came down does not mean it will not be reconstructed.

 

If you have not seen it, seek it out. And if you think you saw it and didn’t like or understand it. Consider a re-evaluation. You might be surprised. I can assure that you will not be bored.

I can’t help but add that should you ever have the opportunity to hear Andrzej Zulawski, Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders speak, always take advantage of it. These three important filmmakers are widely different and yet oddly aligned.  Just listening to each of these filmmakers discuss their work, art or life in general is fascinating. All three are highly intellectual without any air of superiority. A discussion with one of these men is a true experience. One of the aspects of each of these artist is that they do not crave or need your approval. In fact if approached from the perspective of “a fan” that are less likely to respond. These three men — especially Andrzej Zulawki — are very much grounded in reality and logic. They do not thrive in the “celebrity bubble” that encapsulates most of their contemporaries.

Only their work takes flight…

So I find myself coming back to a key scene in Possession where the husband, played by Sam Neill, is essentially interrogated. A question is posed to him, “Does Our Subject Still Wear Pink Socks?”  It is this line that starts the journey into the darkest corners of the human psyche as well as the darkest corners of a world that equates the color of socks to assessing individuality.

Conformity at all cost... Isabelle Adjani & Another Victim Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Conformity at all cost…
Isabelle Adjani & Another Victim
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Before you step into the experience of Possession, this might assist you.

"I'm afraid of myself" Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I’m afraid of myself”
Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Are you ready or not?