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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

 

 

 

 

Starting as an odd Midnight Movie, David Lynch's debut feature film is now considered a work of cinematic art. Eraserhead David Lynch, 1977

Starting as an odd Midnight Movie, David Lynch’s debut feature film is now considered a work of cinematic art.
Eraserhead
David Lynch, 1977

It’s been building for almost 15 years now, but many of the cinematic treasures buried under the title of Cult Film are currently being re-examined and re-evaluated. There are still plenty of cinephiles who shudder as classics like Valley of the Dolls, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, One-Eyed Jacks and Carnival of Souls are taking their deserved seats within The Criterion Collection.

As my generation moves toward half century mark, the younger generations of movie lovers are feeling less self-conscious when it comes to fully owning their love of Cult Films that have never quite fit into the restrictively defined Cinematic Masterpiece.

I’ve never worried much about what people think of me. As a teenager I would often snare unsuspecting friends into watching a VHS copy of a movie I deemed as essential. I remember some of my pals squirming through a movie like John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs or Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. I myself placed in a defensive position. I would attempt to list the cinematic virtues of a numerous cinematic oddities that had been relegated to midnight screenings and discarded as Odd, Smut and ultimately Cult Films. I began to formulate excuses for these movies I loved. These were offered up as self-defenses to shield my ego from the those harbingers of The Cinematic Elite.

  • This movie is so bad it comes around to exceptional
  • A movie we must love to hate
  • There is a certain level of artistry to create a film so entertainingly bad
  • It’s fun to watch
  • It is one of my guilty pleasures

The opinion regarding Cult Films has come a long way since I was in high school. I was the only one who had ever rented All Star Video’s VHS copy of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. In fact, I rented it a lot.

Filmed on a shoe string and with a desire to haunt vs. scare -- This strange B Movie is now a treasured member of The Criterion Collection. Carnival of Souls Herk Harvey, 1962

Filmed on a shoe string and with a desire to haunt vs. scare — This strange B Movie is now a treasured member of The Criterion Collection.
Carnival of Souls
Herk Harvey, 1962

There was a period of time when I would enter All Star and the lady behind the counter would say, “Look y’all! It’s that kid who rents Eraserhead!” Turns out they had acquired the tape by accident. Some of my friends enjoyed some of what they saw in David Lynch’s surreal movie, but more than a few were bored or disgusted. Some of my pals discovered that it was a great movie with which to get stoned. Gradually a few others began to rent All Star’s VHS copy. In less than a decade Eraserhead would finally begin to garnish the respect it deserved. It would take a whole lot longer for Carnival of Souls to gain appropriate recognition, but this year it was remastered and issued as a member of The Criterion Collection.

After I had finally begun to find a place within the ranks of a respected Film Festival my knowledge and love of French and Asian cinema would be put to some good use, but even as we entered the 21st Century there was still passive annoyance at films that dared to color outside the lines of societal ideas of Cinematic Art.

"Love really hurts... Koroshiya 1 / Ichi The Killer Takashi Miike, 2001

“Love really hurts…
Koroshiya 1 / Ichi The Killer
Takashi Miike, 2001

I first saw Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer at a limited screening not too long after the tragedies of 9/11. It took me several minutes to ground myself back into the real world as I stumbled out of the theatre. I found it difficult to articulate what it was that so strongly appealed regarding this sick and twisted movie. In many ways it was a cartoonish orgy of gore that never let up. The special effects were not so much realistic as they were insanely creative. The film was far more interested in following a sadistic and comically twisted thug following Ichi‘s bloody trail of violence than in Ichi himself. Each passing scene seemed to propel the audience into higher levels of audacity and shock. This was a needless exercise in the excesses of violence and aberrantly cruel behaviors. But all of it was presented in such silly and innovative ways, it was almost impossible not to watch.

Surveying the carnage Tadanobu Asano Ichi The Killer Takashi Miike, 2001 Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

Surveying the carnage
Tadanobu Asano
Ichi The Killer
Takashi Miike, 2001
Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

I was not new to the over-the-top genre of Japanese Shock Horror movies, but this was something a great deal different. I had already been caught in Miike’s web the year before. His 1999 Cult Film, Audition, was in many ways a far superior film. It had been a surrealist take on a widowed man’s sexual fears. The gore utilized in Audition was far more realistic in look and the film’s exploration into self-hate, human cruelty and misogyny was a bit more than the average viewer would ever be able to approve. It was a smart and exceptionally well crafted movie that would only ever have a limited audience. Ichi The Killer was not nearly so dire. Ichi took no prisoners, but it also allowed the audience a “pass” regarding its violent nature.

"Everything I'm about to tell you is a joke..." This young Yakuza soldier is having a strange day that quickly morphs into levels of strangeness too odd to be explained. There is genius here. Hideki Sone GOZU Takashi Miike, 2003 Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

“Everything I’m about to tell you is a joke…”
This young Yakuza soldier is having a strange day that quickly morphs into levels of strangeness too odd to be explained. There is genius here.
Hideki Sone
GOZU
Takashi Miike, 2003
Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

From my perspective, both Audition and Ichi The Killer were destined for consideration as films of note. But if I had to place my bet, I’d venture that it would be Ichi The Killer that would manage to achieve mutually agreed regard. Interestingly it would be Audition that was the first to be recognized as something more than simply Cult. But the time of Ichi The Killer will soon arrive. Let’s hope that Ichi is ready for the validation. He is kind of sensitive.

Two years after I saw Ichi The Killer in a cinema, I pitched the idea of having the film festival host a retrospective of Miike’s work. I had put out “feelers” and his camp was more than willing and the director was open to attending. He did not speak English, but he had someone who could join him as his translator. In addition, his 2003 film, GOZU had only enjoyed one US screening at this point. I had been lucky enough to receive a promotional copy of that film. GOZU is an experiment into Yakuza thriller gone the way of Lynchian fever dream. GOZU is artistic, comical, beyond strange and unforgettable. I was excited as I pitched the idea to the committee. Only one of the ten members shared in my enthusiasm. My idea was nixed. GOZU and Miike went to Chicago.

Wagner drugs and then literally saps Franz Liszt of his blood. Paul Nicholas and Roger Daltrey LISZTOMANIA Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Wagner drugs and then literally saps Franz Liszt of his blood.
Paul Nicholas and Roger Daltrey
LISZTOMANIA
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

My pleas for the committee to consider Ken Russell’s The Devils and Lisztomania fell prey to closed minds and snobbery. Appreciation for Ken Russell’s brilliant The Devils has existed since the film’s debut through to today. The problem is that many have never had the amazing opportunity to see this important film in Russell’s original cut. Warner Bros. continues to hold that film hostage thanks to the powers of The Vatican. It is the only reason that seems to explain Warner Bros. refusal to relinquish the movie. It continues to sit in exile within the confines of the Warner Bros. vault. Although not blessed with the masterful artistry of The Devils, Ken Russell’s surreal comic book take on Franz Liszt is also due for reconsideration. Rumors continue to fly about regarding the resurgence of both films. Back in my teen years I was constantly pimping Ken Russell to the unconverted. It is impossible to understand, but it has only been in the last decade that Ken Russell’s brilliance has begun to receive the recognition that so very many knew it and he was due. And the rally call for both of these films — most especially for The Devils — is growing stronger.

"Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights." Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin Production Design | Derek Jarman

“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin
Production Design | Derek Jarman

A couple of years ago I got into a disagreement with someone of “standing” within the world of Film Restoration. A seminal film was at stake. Was this beloved and profoundly odd but brilliant film damned to be restored by a well-intentioned but tech limited distribution company? As it became clear that my opinion meant nothing to this individual who is actually a bigger Film Snob than me — and that is saying something — I took one more consideration regarding concerns of bombast, overly silly presentation, perverse articulation and Grindhouse residue. I ended the conversation with the following sentence:

I will watch Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief, The Godfather or Casablanca as often as I watch this film.

As it turned out, this almost forgotten cinematic gem was restored brilliantly by the great team at Vinegar Syndrome. One of my favorite movies, The Telephone Book, was restored and re-issued to an unsuspecting public. Sadly their efforts did not result in many sales.

Just because it is X-rated and full-on odd does not mean that it isn't a valid artistic experience. The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971

Just because it is X-rated and full-on odd does not mean that it isn’t a valid artistic experience. The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971

This type of discussion became a sort of staple of my Movie Lover’s Life. It was also a discussion I was nearly always bound to lose. But something is in the air. I’d like to think it partially thanks to my generation, but it is equally indebted to the generation that arrived just after mine. There are a number of people now in their mid-to-late 30’s who recognize the importance of many films that cause life threatening eye-rolling by most serious cinematic scholars born before 1972.

Before she became An Unmarried Woman and deservedly respected actor, Jill Clayburgh was a valuable featured player in an experimental movie mistakenly considered pornography. Jill Clayburgh The Telephone Book Nelson Lyon, 1971 Cinematography | Leon Perera

Before she became An Unmarried Woman and deservedly respected actor, Jill Clayburgh was a valuable featured player in an experimental movie mistakenly considered pornography.
Jill Clayburgh
The Telephone Book
Nelson Lyon, 1971
Cinematography | Leon Perera

Another highly valuable movie that had been thought long lost is Jean-Jacques Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter. A neon-drenched world awaits the viewer who allows themselves to slip into this strange film. While it is most certainly flawed, it is equally most certainly fascinating. Cinema Libre Studio restored and reissued the film to DVD/Blu-Ray in 2011.

Largely panned when it debuted in cinemas,  Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1983 flop continues to be re-evaluated.  The Moon in the Gutter / La lune dans le caniveau Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983

Largely panned when it debuted in cinemas, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1983 flop continues to be re-evaluated.
The Moon in the Gutter / La lune dans le caniveau
Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983

They also did the same for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s infamous Betty Blue, but opted to issue only the theatrical version of that film. Sales for Betty Blue were strong, but The Moon in the Gutter is no longer in print. Seek it out.  Meanwhile the director’s cut of Betty Blue is out there and will most likely be re-issued soon. Which paves the way for a restoration of that director’s successful but largely forgotten art film, Diva. An unforgettable hybrid film that is experimental to say the least. We are likely to see this film receive an upgrade within the next year or so.

"Her voice was his calling." Diva Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981

“Her voice was his calling.”
Diva
Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981

It had been a fairly tight secret when The Criterion Collection decided to pursue the distribution rights for both The Valley of the Dolls and its dirty little sister, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The announcement created a bit of grumbling, but many are thrilled to finally see these two cultural relics restored.

 

"This is my happening and it freaks me out!" Long maligned but deeply loved by a whole lot more -- Russ Meyer and Roger Eberts' 1970 X-Rated film has also joined the ranks of The Criterion Collection. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Russ Meyer, 1970

“This is my happening and it freaks me out!”
Long maligned but deeply loved by a whole lot more — Russ Meyer and Roger Eberts’ 1970 X-Rated film has also joined the ranks of The Criterion Collection.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Russ Meyer, 1970

Kino Lober and Olive Films have also been doing a great job of rescuing lost or forgotten cult films. This month KL released Otto Preminger’s all but forgotten Cult Film, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon Junie Moon. Olive Films has just released three other treasured Cult Films, Wild In the Streets, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and Modesty Blaise.

"You said she was going to eat us." Strange and surprisingly effective... Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Curtis Harrington, 1972

“You said she was going to eat us.”
Strange and surprisingly effective…
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?
Curtis Harrington , 1972

Get ready. Here are but a few other films up for reconsideration beyond the realm of The Cult Film

"Eventually stars burn out..." This 2014 was far too quickly dismissed and ignored. This is a Cult Film that is destined for later appreciation and re-evaluation. Map to the Stars David Cronenberg, 2014

“Eventually stars burn out…”
This 2014 was far too quickly dismissed and ignored. This is a Cult Film that is destined for later appreciation and re-evaluation.
Map to the Stars
David Cronenberg, 2014

 

"Why don't rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday's? Well, it's hard to rape with a stomachache." The jokes induce squirms vs. laughs as the comic's ego deconstructs. Gregg Turkington ENTERTAINMENT Rick Alverson, 2014 Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

“Why don’t rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday’s? Well, it’s hard to rape with a stomachache.”
The jokes induce squirms vs. laughs as the comic’s ego deconstructs.
Gregg Turkington
ENTERTAINMENT
Rick Alverson, 2014
Cinematography | Lorenzo Hagerman

 

"Gilderoy, this is going to be a fantastic film. Brutal and honest. Nobody has seen this horror before." Berberian Sound Studio Peter Strickland, 2012 Cinematography | Nicholas D. Knowland

“Gilderoy, this is going to be a fantastic film. Brutal and honest. Nobody has seen this horror before.”
Berberian Sound Studio
Peter Strickland, 2012
Cinematography | Nicholas D. Knowland

 

" Everything is more complicated than you think..." Coming up close to a decade -- is the audience ready to revisit Charlie Kaufman's ever undulating surreal epic? Philip Seymour Hoffman Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman, 2008 Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

” Everything is more complicated than you think…”
Coming up close to a decade — is the audience ready to revisit Charlie Kaufman’s ever undulating surreal epic?
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman, 2008
Cinematography | Frederick Elmes

The film I am most excited about is John Schlesinger’s strange and surreal forgotten bit of dark magic, The Day of the Locust. The Hollywood Dream is reduced to absolute metaphorical nightmare. It also features some of Conrad L. Hall’s best cinematography work.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen in radioland. We're speaking to you from the forecourt of Grumman's Chinese Theater here in Hollywood, California..." John Schlesinger, 1975

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen in radioland. We’re speaking to you from the forecourt of Grumman’s Chinese Theater here in Hollywood, California…”
John Schlesinger, 1975

And, of course, Takashi Miike’s odd trip into Surrealism — GOZU.

"There's no need to hide something as fine and dandy as that!" GOZU Takashi Miike, 2003 Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

“There’s no need to hide something as fine and dandy as that!”
GOZU
Takashi Miike, 2003
Cinematography | Kazunari Tanaka

Matty Stanfield, 8.16.2016

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?