21
Sep
13

La Femme Publique (1984)

After watching my third Żuławski film, La Femme Publique, I’m only sure of one thing: I’m not at all sure about this Żuławski guy. All of the characters I’ve met so far are unstable, unhinged, and unsavory, and those in La Femme Publique are certainly no exception. That being said, I’m not sure I can stay away from him, either. I’m attracted to the instability of not only his characters, but his plot lines as well. I’m not quite certain how to label La Femme Publique; it’s a mixture of mystery, political thriller, psychological drama, art house, and who knows what else. It’s one of those winding plots that makes you scratch your head wondering how you got to point Z from point A, and what did  Exhibit Q have to do with it the whole time anyway?

Ethel's audition.

Ethel’s audition.

So, what is La Femme Publique about? The film is centered around Ethel, a beautiful young woman who takes her clothes off and dances for men while they photograph her. She’s so intense, she makes them cry, or have heart-attacks, or both. But, Ethel wants more; she wants to be in the movies. So, she auditions for one – a film version of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. The director is Lucas Kessling, a Czech immigrant who is cocky enough to think he can get a good performance out of Ethel’s mediocre abilities. All the while, Ethel’s family is falling apart – her father is constantly running away from gambling debts, while her mother is attempting suicide because she can’t get over her guilt about the whole thing. They scream, they drink, they cry, and some of them die. (Actually, this might be an appropriate synopsis for all the Żuławski I’ve seen up to this point!)

Shooting.

Shooting.

Anyway, Kessling is clearly trying to take advantage of Ethel’s naive fragility, while exploiting her inherently fierce nature for the screen. He is, of course, also sleeping with her, as well as some other woman, whom Ethel believes matches the description of a corpse they just pulled out of the river. She tries to prove it, and in her search for proof she meets the woman’s husband, Milan. Slowly but surely, Ethel ends up taking over the woman’s identity: wearing her shoes, dyeing her hair, and resuming her spot in the relationship with Milan. Milan, perhaps more than any other character in the film, is way off the rails. He is always carrying around a gun, and eventually is pushed over the edge by Kessling and commits political assassination.

Milan and the mysterious woman.

Milan and the mysterious woman.

So, what does it all mean? Well, surely it has something to do with Żuławski’s tumultuous relationship with his home country. His films have never really been accepted in Poland, a place from which he’s fled multiple times. But exactly what he’s putting out there I just couldn’t grasp. Perhaps I was too distracted by the blatant misogyny which permeates the film. Ethel’s character, though very emotional strong at times, is also extremely vulnerable and almost always seen by others as merely an object of sexual attraction: complete strangers fondle her in elevators, for instance, and I just can’t figure out what purpose it serves the film. What does it mean that she uses her body to fuel her father’s gambling habit? That she must forsake her individual self and play the part of a dead woman in order to fully embrace the acting role in which the director has placed her? I get a Hounddog vibe out of the whole thing, seems Żuławski and Kampmeier both believe that women are incapable of artful expression without being raped, demoralized and robbed of their senses of selves.

Elevator assault.

Elevator assault.

The internet doesn’t have much to say about this film, which is a shame because I’d really like to know what everyone else thinks of it. As it stands right now, I’m just not sure if I hated it or thought it was good enough. I know I didn’t love it; towards the middle and through to the end, I found it exhausting. There were at least three or four spots where I thought the movie could have ended, but exasperatingly, it didn’t. Still, the movie is intriguing enough that I might watch it again, if for no other reason to try and figure out if a second viewing will answer any of the questions I have! A second viewing of La Femme Publique may not happen any time soon, but I know for sure that I’ll watch another Żuławski  in a heartbeat; I’m far too curious about what he produces, what’s going on in his brain, and what he might do next in any given film.

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