Notes on SZAMANKA
In preparation for 200 words I needed to write about writer-director Andrzej Zulawski, last night I watched what is presently his penultimate feature, SZAMANKA, a French-Swiss-Polish co-production from 1996. Set in Warsaw, Poland, the film is, like much of Zulawski's work, a human story staged against a shifting political dynamic and it is also, like all of Zulawski's work, a shriek directed at the cosmos in objection to the essential incompleteness of man. His films have a reputation for being erotic, but they seldom are; they are about sex, and they are often graphic without becoming pornographic, but the sex is never satisfying for the characters or the viewers because they are meant to lay bare yearnings that can only be satisfied by our ultimate return to God. The sex in SZAMANKA ultimately takes on a religious connotation, which can be seen here in the face of actor Bogoslaw Linda, who gives a remarkable performance.
Linda plays Michal, a Polish archaeologist who meets a college student known only as "the Italian" (Iwona Petry) when his suicidal priest brother abandons his apartment. When the Italian expresses aggressive interest in taking over the lease, the archaeologist takes sexual advantage. She doesn't object but doesn't seem to like it either, until she turns to him mid-coitus with a "gotcha" smile that makes sense only as the story continues to unfold.
The two characters embark on what seems a mutually addictive, LAST TANGO-like sexual relationship within the claustrophobic apartment. One of their trysts becomes humorous in that, every time we assume it has ended, it begins again, for what seemed to me five times running, at which point the perspiring couple begin laughing themselves.
But, as in all Zulawski relationships, where there is desire, there is pain -- pain tapped by the impossibility of true spiritual connection. The Italian's emotions are played so as to seem rooted in the objectification and sexual imposition that all attractive women suffer, and though the film might sound exploitative, it paints a very bitter portrait of the indignities women endure in an exploitative culture.
But the Italian is more than she appears to be. As the story gains a sometimes baffling philosophic complexity, Michal is changed from sexual predator to the predated. (Often in Zulawski's work, the most initially repugnant characters become surprisingly sympathetic.) Here we see him literally brought to his knees by photos of details of the Italian's nude body, arranged into an icon appropriate to his new religion.
As the dialogue explains, the Italian is actually a szamanka (shaman or succubus) who, while Michal believed he was ejaculating inside of her, was in fact ejaculating "female sperm" inside of him, which has infested and taken possession of him. Consider this information only a semi-spoiler, as where their relationship finally takes them is, I think it is safe to say, astonishing.
While this bizarre love story is proceeding, Michal is having exciting times in his day job, as the ancient mummy of another shaman, male, is unearthed for the examination of his team. The shaman's body (discovered in possession of psylocybin and other antique hallucinogens) is covered in tattoo spirals and other arcane markings, and the back of his head has been shattered, ostensibly to permit the fleeing of his soul.
In a tremendous sequence, the archaeologic team appear to succumb to mass insanity as a result of exposure to the shaman's remains and undertake to revive him while getting high on his stash.
The moment when the mad team of scientists walk like Egyptians across the screen is simply one of the most impressively preposterous in Zulawski's filmography.
But greater still is the moment when -- possibly real, possibly hallucinated -- the shaman does revive and whispers words of wisdom into Michal's ear. Alas, it is too late for wisdom and the story to which the principals are doomed must play itself out, as indeed it did centuries before.
SZAMANKA (in Polish, the feminine form of "shaman") is available only as a Russian import DVD on the Premier Digital label. It is NTSC and all-region with French and Russian audio and English or Russian subtitles. (Alas, no Polish track so all the audio is dubbed -- with the Russian being dubbed over the French track in the manner of verbal subtitling.) Tony Simonelli at Xploited Cinema tells me he has only one copy left in stock, which they will not be renewing, so I would recommend that anyone interested in seeing this fascinating, mad picture should act... like yesterday.