US-based newcomers Mondo Vision enter the DVD market with a superbly produced release of cult Polish director Andrzej Zulawski's "La femme publique" (1984). A maddening yet intoxicating analysis of an aspiring actress struggling to make it in a world of excess and political demagogy pic is a terrific introduction into the controversial legacy of one of world cinema's most gifted, yet impossible to fully deconstruct, filmmakers.
A beautiful young actress (Valérie Kaprisky) is given the chance to shine in a film based on Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed". When the shooting begins she quickly loses touch with reality and becomes obsessed with her role. The director (Francis Huster) repeatedly abuses her. Eventually she ends up in a different film directed by a Czech immigrant who will find himself involved in a political game ruled by dangerous radicals.
Serving the usual dose of unorthodox storytelling La femme publique goes deep into the psyche of a young woman whose acting aspirations produce a string of perplexing events with a common theme. Understanding what the theme is is what makes Zulawski's film a fascinating viewing experience.
In La femme publique sex, violence, and paranoia are all mixed up in an explosive narrative of wickedly subversive nature where one could easily lose one's way in a sea of symbolic imagery. Not surprisingly the dialog is difficult to fully comprehend leaving plenty of room for speculations addressing the main protagonists and their placement in the story. The young actress and her catatonic bursts for example are incredibly powerful granting La femme publique with a surreal flavor that is impossible to describe.
The introduction of a political plot which is never effectively resolved coupled with Sacha Vierny's depressing cinematography effectively elevates La femme publique into a very dark suspense story where a difficult to decode enigma invites a number of reads. Is this a film about human exploitation, a political crime, or veiled attempt at deconstructing the spurious world of show business? As usual Zulawski does not provide a concrete answer, he only invites us to read between the lines and temporarily enter his maddening reality.
What one is likely to extract from Zulawski's controversial films is largely predicated on one's understanding of the director's willingness to go as far as physically abusing his actors (Szamanka) in the name of a controversial ideal, or a sense of authenticity if you will, which is apparently achievable only if an actor is ready to step beyond what I could only describe as the "break point". If one is willing to accept that one could succumb to such a controversial treatment, to meet an aesthetic ideal apparently, then one could certainly begin to understand why the young actress in La femme publique behaves as she does. Yes, Zulawski's film is about a film about the making of a film but it is also, ironically in my opinion, a film about a director who very much resembles the director of La femme publique - a demanding, controversial, and ultimately impossible to comprehend person apparently obsessed with perfection.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and enhanced for widescreen TVs La femme publique arrives on DVD via newcomers Mondo Vision. I've had this release siting on my desk for quite some time now and have been nothing short of ecstatic given the absolutely breathtaking results the US-based distribs have achieved. In fact, I would go on record here and claim that this is the best treatment a Zulawski film has gotten since the introduction of the format (Anchor Bay's Possession included). Period.
First of all, our friends from Mondo Vision have delivered a progressive, unfiltered, NTSC transfer that retains the film's delicate grain structure while at the same time allowing for a fine and very nuanced look of exceptionally high quality. The color scheme in particular is very convincing with beautifully rendered reds, yellows, blues, and blacks. Edge-enhancement on the other hand isn't an issue and as far as I am concerned this DVD transfer comes as close to what an HD release of La femme publique might reveal as possible. Furthermore, the print is notably consistent and I personally could not spot any examples of inherited deterioration (specks, dirt, and debris have been adequately addressed here). Clarity and detail are also of exceptionally high quality allowing one to truly immerse into Zulawski's paranoid yet very colorful world. Finally, this is an NTSC-encoded, Region-free disc.
How Does the DVD Sound?
La Femme publique offers the original French Dolby Digital Mono track with optional, white, English subtitles. Once again the treatment here is of exceptional quality. Alain Wisniak's soundtrack comes off the speakers marvelously - it is both disturbing and soothing at the same time. It is also perfectly balanced with the dialog (I also did not detect any hissing, cracks, or drop-outs to report here). The English translation is exceptionally well done and I believe that many will appreciate the efforts that have gone into it given Zulawski's often difficult to decipher narratives.
Before we focus on the extras found on the actual disc I would like to point your attention to the beautiful booklet which Mondo Vision have provided for the release of La femme publique. In this lavish 24-page booklet you will find a filmography for Andrzej Zulawski highlighting his Polish, French, and English-language films (each marked with color dots), and a synopsis for the film. There is also a marvelous essay by Daniel Bird (2008) titled "Between the Scenes: La femme publique" which offers an incredibly detailed and insightful evaluation of the Polish director's controversial record as well as his placement in the history annals of cinema. Hysteria or Ecstasy is a particularly intriguing chapter of the essay which effectively pinpoints why Zulawski's films are so polarizing. Next, is "Andrzej Zulawski: A to Z" which appears to be retranslated from the original French press kit - a biographical exposé of the Polish director. Finally, text-biographies for Dominique Carnier, the writer of La femme publique, and Sasha Vierny are added up as well.
On the actual DVD you will find the following extras: a 1984 pre-release trailer for La femme publique, an image gallery containing French lobby cards, Japanese publicity, production stills, Zulawski on set, posters, Japanese press book, flyers, and expoguigoy gallery. The true gems on this disc are the interview with Andrzej Zulawski, entirely in English with optional subtitles, where he discusses the introduction of the political subplot, the complex characters, as well as the film's controversial message, and, the full-blown audio commentary which in my opinion is worth double the price tag Mondo Vision are asking for this disc.
It is almost too good to be true - Mondo Vision have assembled a package that will warm up the hearts of many film aficionados who have been hoping to see Andrzej Zulawski's La femme publique treated with the proper dose of respect. Well, the wait is over. I would like to go on record here stating that even Criterion could have not produced such a terrific package. This is a gift for all of us and I hope that Mondo Vision will be around for many years to come so we could benefit from their admirable desire to please. Good luck Mondo Vision and thank you for this most beautiful release!! DVDTALK Collector Series.