Shattering Galatea

in 13rd T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival

by Neil Young

The archival programming at Wroclaw’s T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival has always been one of the event’s great strengths, and in 2013 the retrospectives and thematic strands once again provided chances to catch dozens of older films the way they were made to be seen: on big screens, and via the (sometimes rough) magic of 35mm. With so many festivals of higher international profile so enthusiastically migrating to digital projection — even for pre-21st century works — New Horizons continues to exist in the realm of celluloid dream.

And while a handful of the New Horizons older titles were this year projected from DCPs and the like, the vast bulk was via 35mm, spread across several sections including ‘Midnight Madness: Cyberpunk’, ‘New Horizons of Film Language: Character/Actor’ (exploring aspects of thespian performance in auteur and avant-garde cinema) and ‘French Neo-Baroque’ (cult films by Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson and Léos Carax).

My investigation of these sidebars threw up one particularly intriguing common strand linking three apparently very disparate works, namely Fukui Shojin’s 964 Pinocchio (1991) from Midnight Madness, Andrzej Zulawski’s She-Shaman (Szamanka) (1996) from ‘Character/Actor’, and that fervid peak of French Neo-Baroque, Beineix’s Betty Blue (37°2 le matin, 1986).

In his catalogue essay on the ‘Character/Actor’ strand, ‘Less Is More’, Adam Kruk asserts that “what fills a film with nearly metaphysical energy is the tension between the artist and medium of content and form, i.e. the actor. That tension can assume a dramatic, emotionally exhausting nature. Henri-Georges Clouzot often subjected his actors to tremendous stress… driving them to the near-hysterics needed by the director to achieve his intended effect.

“Polish director Andrzej Zulawski used a similar method, wherein he prompted intense relationships with his muses to then cast them into the murky depths of the screen’s spasms… This method is sometimes perilous: the lead in She-Shaman paid for it with depression and a nervous breakdown. Isabelle Adjani had similarly bad memories from Zulawski’s Possession (1981) though the result was powerful enough on screen to garner her an award at Cannes and her first César.”

The She-Shaman actress to whom Kruk refers is the enigmatic Iwona Petry, who — so the story goes — was spotted in a coffee-shop in downtown Warsaw by Zulawski, who cast the then 20-year-old as the lead (a character known only as ‘The Italian’) in his wild, fable-like exploration of extreme sexuality. The steamy picture, which oscillates between high silliness and flashes of startlingly bold inspiration, became something of a succès de scandale when it premiered at the 1996 Venice Film Festival.

As Variety’s reviewer Stephen O’Shea put it at the time, “Zulawski’s knack for putting pretty young actresses through the erotic wringer seems undiminished since his serial disrobing of Valerie Kaprisky and Sophie Marceau in the mid-’80s. Here it is newcomer Iwona Petry, a sort of Liv Tyler on amphetamines, who spends most of the pic in various stages of undressed distress and ecstasy.”

What set Petry apart from the previous occupants of Zulawski’s “erotic wringer” was her combination of youth and inexperience — she’d had just one 1993 bit-part to her name. and the fact that she’s never acted in another film since She-Shaman (she popped up in one episode of a Polish TV series in 2000) lends credibility to gossip that Zulawski’s methods in eliciting the performance crossed certain lines of acceptable professional conduct.

And while there’s really never been anything before or after Possession to compare with Adjani’s legendary subway freakout — a ragingly intense and prolonged display of violent physical histrionics culminating in an epic discharge of vaginal goo —, the 25-year-old actress had been making movies for over a decade. During that time she’d already navigated severe emotional torments as the distressed heroine of François Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H. (1975), which provided the first of Adjani’s eight César nominations.

But for Petry her debut was to prove her swansong — as was also the case with Onn-chan, the mono-monikered Japanese actress who plays the female lead in Fukui’s cockeyed horror romance ?964 Pinocchio. The nightmarish plot sees her ditzy, amnesiac character Himiko befriending a malfunctioning sex-slave clone-type humanoid only to later become his captor and torturer. When first glimpsed, Himiko’s quirky dress-sense and street-dwelling insouciance stir memories of Petry in She-Shaman — and her pivotal transition-scene is an explicit homage to Possession’s Metro set-piece, with the young woman stumbling along in agony, retching up industrial quantities of a vomit that looks suspiciously like hummus (perhaps purchased at a bulk-buy discount from some Lebanese eaterie in the Ginza).

The scene is of such gruelling unpleasantness that it comes as little surprise to learn that Onn-chan hasn’t ventured in front of the cameras since, her ‘retirement’ prefiguring that of delicate Murakami Maki, who in Kanyama Keihiro’s tragic love-story Seesaw (2010) delivers an astonishing tour de force performance that includes one of the longest unbroken crying-jags in cinematic history.

IMDb indicates no acting credits before or since for Murakami, which is concerning as world cinema can’t really afford to let such talents slip through its fingers. Who knows, for example, what Petry — whose raven-haired pale beauty suggests a vampiric cross between Lena Headey and Barbara Steele, and whose demonic energy provides the wayward She-Shaman with much-needed oomph — might have accomplished for other directors if she’d chosen to remain in show-business?

Is it too fanciful, for example, to imagine a career along the lines of Béatrice Dalle’s? Dalle was just 21 when Beineix cast her in — and as — Betty Blue, her engagingly wild character’s ferocious volatility gradually shading into genuinely disturbing mental illness. More than a quarter of a century later, Dalle’s sensually charged performance can still make the jaw drop, as she plunges into the child-woman’s troubled psyche with a gusto that sometimes seem to hover on the edge of recklessness. Dalle, like Adjani, has of course over the decades become known for her resilience and longevity — she was in Wroclaw to introduce Betty Blue in person, and continues to probe the hazardous margins of human existence through her work.

Actresses like Petry, Onn-chan and Murakami, however, occupy a different, perhaps more troubling niche in cinema history. One might also mention Björk, who reportedly had such a tough time making Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) that she swore off acting altogether — and despite emulating Adjani by taking the Prix d’Interpretation Féminine at Cannes, she’s basically kept to her word ever since.

It’s tempting to fit these fair ladies into a classical mould — to see them as hapless Galateas, their performances carved out by male directors wielding Pygmalion’s furious chisel, magicking brittle ivory into an even more fragile material, flesh. Discussing Wroclaw’s opening film -the Cannes-garlanded Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle) — with colleagues later in the week, I heard talk about how director Abdellatif Kechiche had apparently “gone to far” in terms of pushing the then-18-year-old Adèle Exarchopoulos towards delivering what most observers would agree is among the new century’s most astonishing displays of big-screen acting.

Then again, we are, let’s not forget, talking about consenting, adult professionals here. And the tempting joys of (potentially libellous) conjecture must always be carefully balanced against the famed dictum of Lao Tzu: “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”

Neil Young