Wednesday 3 October 2018

The Question in Bodies #19: I Keep Thinking About Iwona Petry

Szamanka (1996)

All of this is preamble: Szamanka is a film that hasn't been given a certificate by the BBFC. I don't know why. It might simply be that a distributor never took it up over here rather than the BBFC refusing to classify it, for example. But it is quite an extreme film, and it features a lot of graphic – not pornographic, mind – sex. It's consequently quite a hard film to find in the UK, at any rate. And it's not a cheap one. I will nonetheless be giving away plot points, because this isn't, as usual, a review, but you shouldn't feel you can't read this if you haven't seen it. In fact, I went and sourced a copy of Szamanka after having read Kier-La Janisse’s equally spoilery analysis in House of Psychotic Women, which is a book I cannot recommend highly enough, and which made me really, really want to see the film in the first place, spoilers and all.

If you're in the UK, your chance of having seen Szamanka is pretty small anyway. Which is all by way of an unapologetic acknowledgement that yes, there are spoilers, but since it's hard to find, don't worry about that, and anyway, it's such a delirious film that even having spoilers doesn't really make a difference, and anyway, I might convince you that you have quite good reason not to want to see it. Regular readers will know that this is a The Question in Bodies post, so the usual warnings about discussions of trauma, abuse, sex, consent and that stuff apply. You don't need a post about a film you haven't seen ruin your day, so if you think it might be distressing, stay away.

After the cut, I'll begin.

The shaman.

I keep thinking about Iwona Petry.

Hold that thought. I'll come back to it.

In Andrzej’s Zuławski’s Szamanka (Shamaness), Iwona Petry plays a student from a working class area of Poland, known only as Wloszka (“the Italian”), who comes to Warsaw to study engineering. There, although they both have partners, she begins an affair with Michal (Boguslaw Linda), an anthropology professor. Shortly after their first tryst, Michal’s archaeological dig finds in an excavation a bog mummy, thousands of years old and yet perfectly preserved. As they examine the corpse, Michal and his team find evidence that he was a shaman – a bag of equally well preserved psilocybin mushrooms, the marks of ritual murder – and Michal projects his preoccupation with shamanism onto the Italian. He imagines her as a shamanic figure. It becomes an obsession.

And the thing is, she is. The Italian, like a shaman, doesn't fit, socially. She is strange. And her behaviour, the behaviour of someone who's been terribly damaged, her destructive, embarrassing behaviour, makes a sort of sense if you imagine her as the titular Szamanka, the shamaness. Which I suppose highlights that she doesn't get a name. “The Italian” is just a nickname she gets because she used to work in a pizza house. No one calls her anything else. But what place is there for a shamaness in a world with no real place for shamanism?

That's the main thrust of the film, except none of that really gets across how wild Szamanka is, with the suicides, and the bit where human brains get eaten out of their owner's skull with a teaspoon, and the bit where all the anthropologists decide to do some shamanism on the body while all high (which ends about as well as how you'd expect it to end), and the bit where a 3000 year old bog mummy comes back to life and explains the plot, and the late-onset plotline about a stolen component from a nuclear warhead, and then the frankly unexpected apocalypse, and the prolific and explicit banging.

There are a lot of sex scenes in Szamanka. Buckets of them. Oral sex, anal sex, missionary sex, sex from behind, good sex, masturbation, great sex, disappointing sex, sex that ends in about 30 seconds due to a premature ejaculation, terrible sex, sex in a public place, sex with a glass case full of ancient objects (you might not think that's possible, but no, this is a thing). All the bases are covered, and several things you didn't even realise were bases, and yet, bizarrely, Szamanka is not a particularly erotic film. It's not especially titillating.
Seriously, it's a thing.
The sex, even the weird sex, feels like the real thing, inasmuch as it's all about the awkward tangle of limbs, the uncomfortable positions, the way you sometimes wind up in a heap of elbows or bang heads together, the stickiness of the sweat and secretions. And the way you maybe should have found your “no”. Which is also a thing, since it’s evident that the Italian acquiesces as much as she consents. While she has a voracious and unappeasable hunger for sex, she’s also almost entirely unable to say no – as in her very first encounter with Michal, who all but rapes her (and “all but” is really just code for “basically completely does, but could 100% get acquitted in court”). She’s known for it – during her placement at the foundry, one of the boys remarks, “No effort required. She just jumps in the sack.” Michal for his part treats her abominably, a couple of times presenting her to rollerblading plutonium-stealing research student Jules (Pawel Delag), as if he were offering a lend of his car. Michal and the Italian have an utterly toxic relationship, but their sex is only good with each other, as the Italian realises after a horrendously disappointing dalliance with Voytek (Wojciech Kowman), a fellow student who has fallen hopelessly in love with her.
Voytek: Was it good?
Wloszka: It’s only good with him.
Voytek: Why him?
Wloszka: Because it’s him.
Voytek: He’s waiting for you. Why did you come?
Wloszka: Because you love me.
Voytek: And him?
Wloszka: He is. [She leaves]
I mean, it's realistic enough that you feel like you're watching real people do it for real (as opposed to really doing it for show, which I guess is what porn is, although I’ve never actually watched a real-life porn movie – no! Not even Playmate of the Apes! – so don’t quote me on that), and maybe I’m a freak but I find that feeling of being a voyeur weird and uncomfortable, and not being into that sort of thing, I didn’t really know where to put myself.

Zuławski himself reckoned that “you can show realistic sex by not forcing your actors to pretend that they're doing it.” He might have been onto something there.

Another part of what makes these realistic sex scenes so uncomfortable is that although we see plenty of bare flesh, the part of the body we see the most is the face. The camera repeatedly closes in on the faces of Petry and whoever she's having sex with and we see her reactions, her emotional state. Pain, rage, fear, boredom, bliss.
(I haven't even touched on the anticatholic stuff, but there's only so long a post can be.)
Petry’s is an absolutely extraordinary performance, a complex of bloody open wounds.

I keep thinking about it.

Everything about her, the way she moves, the way she reacts, is off kilter. It's sort of pained. Sort of graceless, clumsy. The brief hints we see of the Italian’s family background suggest abuse and neglect – a father (Zdzislaw Wardejn) who bodily hurls her into a van and drags her to a canning plant, where he tells her she's going to work; a mother (Alicja Jachiewicz) who despises her family and isn't afraid to show it; a sister who went off and got pregnant and left, leaving her mother to bring up the child and resent every second of the process. The Italian talks rarely. She's direct and without manners. When she's suddenly angered by Michal’s drunk friends, she screams at them and sweeps everything off the table. She sees a man make a lewd gesture at her on a train and she vomits. She heads down the riverbank and just squats and pisses on the ground. She's harassed by an old man with no legs in a cafe, and she flips over his chair.

Michal dresses the Italian up in a skintight leopardskin minidress and takes her to a party at his girlfriend's house, which is an utterly appalling thing to do – seriously, the man is a complete bastard from the get go – and she never once looks like an object of desire. She's there in this trashy, sexy dress, and she's not at any point the philandering jerk’s trophy. At the party, she wanders off, loses herself in a weird shamanic ecstasy, dancing to music in the middle of the room, with no regard to the people around her, smears food all over the furniture, and then just leaves.

Michal romanticises her, in a way, by deciding she approaches the world as a shamaness would, but he also describes her as something not quite right, and even at times makes futile, frustrated attempts to “civilise” her.
Michal: You're like a little machine. Eat, sleep, fuck.
In shamanistic cultures, children who were somehow different would be considered to have been touched by the gods. These would be the ones with the survivable differences, the children born intersex, or the ones who as they grew up proved to be other than neurotypical or able to conform to the majority genders. The people who we'd often nowadays label with a diagnosis of some sort, and who our society would, disastrously, do its best to “fix”, would, it is commonly thought, be the shamans.

I don't know how correct that is in current anthropological thought. But it's where Szamanka is coming from. Given how readily and freely the Italian has sex, and how utterly open she is about it, it'd be easy to cast the character as a male fantasy figure, and scenes like the one where she bangs Michal (on a crowded train, standing up) while getting him to accept the suicide of his brother might be the action in a softer film of the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But the Italian is framed very differently. She's dangerous without being a femme fatale, manic without being played for laughs, sexual without being a tool of male gratification.
This looks like a tender, if fraught, moment, but seriously, this guy has just been the worst.
About halfway through the film, Michal is invited on a tour of a psychiatric hospital by Anna’s father (Piotr Machilica, also the legless man at the cafe), his departmental head. We’ll see a woman, afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, who chewed off her own tongue. She’s unable to cope, unable to function. She broke. Michal looks at her, fascinated, seeing the Italian there. She’s only one step away from the woman in the hospital.

The Italian is a collection of complexes. She's so obviously the child of abuse and – here I am, banging on about this over and over again – trauma. She has some sort of undiagnosed psychological disorder, and not a Movie Disorder, the sort that people really have that has them living in fear and confusion, the sort that traps people, and you can see it in her face, the expression of someone who has lost the capacity for simple sorrow, the thousand-yard stare of an abuse survivor.

People feared shamans. Touched by the otherworld as they were, it wasn't, so the narrative we often use goes, necessarily considered a particularly good thing to be one. The shaman was essential to ancient tribal society, and if you didn't have a shaman you were in trouble, but you wouldn't want to be one. But if you were the sort of person marked as a shaman, you had to be one. You didn't get a choice.

If you were a shaman – and again, I don't know if this is what anthropologists think anymore, but it's moot because it's the version Szamanka is built on – it would be because you couldn't be anything else. Tribal society, then, had a place for the people that we diagnose.

At one point, Michal gives a lecture about how a shaman survives and endures in his milieu in a way that an astronaut can't, and it's stupid, because it's based on false equivalences, but the point stands, that the shaman has the tools to survive because the shaman, and presumably the shamaness, has spiritual tools rather than mechanical ones.

Meanwhile the Italian is at the back, orgasming against a glass case full of neolithic objects. The shamaness, fucking the past.

We see her also sitting in a lecture, this time a mechanical engineering lecture (since that's what she's studying at university). Except that the lecturer’s dry lecture about mechanics is about the mechanics of the human sexual organs, about the lubrication of the vagina, and yet no one makes any kind of mention of this, or reacts any more than they would to any engineering lecture.

And I wonder if that's because we're seeing the class from the Italian's viewpoint, if she's hallucinating this, as much as later on, Michal, strung out on neolithic mushrooms, might be hallucinating the bog mummy coming to life and telling his story. We don't get any pointers as to whether anything is a hallucination or not. And why should we? Reality and not-reality, for Michal and the Italian, the wannabe shaman and the de facto shamaness, are fluid and seamless. As it should be for a shaman. As Michal and the Italian begin to play out the story of the bog mummy's fate, the hallucinations become more acute. Towards the end of the film, a shared orgasm bathes them both with a consuming light.

Both Michal’s brother (Piotr Wawrzynczak) and girlfriend Anna (Agnieszka Wagner) commit suicide. The brother, because he's a priest and gay, and can't reconcile the two; Anna because Michal is a cheating bastard and she can't survive without him. The priest’s spirituality can't accommodate homosexual desire; Anna cannot live without the man. Neither can survive. The way to survive, posits this film, is the way of the shaman. To an extent.
Michal: I want to finish my doctoral thesis with you. Not in anthropology, but psychiatry. This shaman ruled over madmen too. Even the sane ones were borderline psychotics. Drugs, hunger, fear, darkness. The solution to the shaman’s riddle lies here, and here. [he points to his head]
Anna’s father: First, see a doctor yourself.
The mummified shaman’s skull was trepanned, to allow his spirit to fly, opened up, a big hole in it. Awakened, the shaman tells Michal his ritual murder was consensual, and the culprit was a shamaness who possessed him and took his role. Michal’s fate is not too different.
"Every god is a god of death."
The Shaman: The secret is in dying.
Michal: And the rest?
The Shaman: Every god is a god of death.
You can’t help but be a shaman. Either you’re not one, or you’re forced to experience all the beauty and horror and difference. Michal becomes a shaman too, through his obsession, and when right at the end he decides to abandon that, attempting to cleanse himself with public service, it doesn’t take. It can’t. He will be the sacrifice, and the Szamanka his natural successor.

I suppose that Szamanka asks the question, what would it take to turn someone into that sort of person and what would they be in a society like ours? And the first part of the answer, but not the whole answer, is: a woman, since this is what society does to women. The Italian doesn't even know she's a shaman. She just is, against her will, and she hasn't found her “no”.

The shamaness is forced to be shamanic; the older man, and the things done to her, and the wider society, they all thrust that role upon her. But by being shamanic, the shamaness wins out in the end. Except the world can't cope with the shamaness surviving, and a sort of Apocalypse ensues. But the Apocalypse ends, and everyone is still there.

All of that might also be a hallucination, except it doesn't matter because that's not the point.

The shamaness wins nonetheless. She endures.

But with all that analysis, I keep thinking about Iwona Petry.

OK, look. Petry's performance is extraordinary. She is absolutely convincing as someone selling the sort of trauma that turns her into something other than human. She becomes grotesque, hunched and twisted. She has the blank, troubled stare of trauma. She screams, and grimaces, and walks like someone terribly troubled. And she is naked and vulnerable on screen. We see her all.

When I wrote about Possession, I said that the kind of trauma Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani sold was so convincing, I wondered if there wasn't something real there, if their trauma wasn't at least a little bit more than just acting, if they hadn't hurt themselves making the film. And I mentioned that Adjani at least wouldn't make that sort of film ever again, and definitely wouldn't work again with Zuławski. And it's not really explicit, what happened there. Nothing really direct was said. Possession is one of my favourite movies. I've watched it maybe six times in the last couple of years.
Adjani didn’t want to see the dailies of Possession, and when she saw the completed film, she said “Listen, your camera doesn’t have the right to look where it’s looking.” She was no doubt talking about its soul. The camera had revealed its truth.
– Zuławski, interviewed in “Andrzej, from Amour to Zuławski” (Best Magazine 13, April 1997)
That's one way of taking what she said, I suppose. But I have to shrug. I wasn’t in the room when that conversation happened.

If you suspect something terrible about the making of one of your favourite movies, does that mean it shouldn't be one of your favourite movies? Is it being wilfully blind to think this doesn’t matter? Is it overly sensitive to think that it does? I honestly don't know.

Iwona Petry was 19 when Andrzej Zuławski spotted her in a café. She'd acted a little, had a bit part in a movie a few years before. Zuławski decided she was going to star in his movie. She got some coaching, but not a huge amount, and just got thrown into the thing. After Szamanka, in which she bared herself in ways that it is not an exaggeration to say go a fair way further than most actors in films tend to, Iwona Petry pretty much dropped off the map. Her entry on the IMDB says she appeared in one episode of a TV show a a few years later, and then nothing else.

After the film came out, dire allegations circulated about how Zuławski got her performance, initially apparently from Petry herself, although she later was silent. It was claimed that she had been abused on set by the director, emotionally and physically. And the stories about what happened range from the weird and farcical (she gave him a teddy bear for Christmas and he destroyed it and hung the bits on the door of her hotel room) to the more bothersome (apparently he forced her, a vegetarian, to eat meat) to the utterly horrible. And well, I can't stop thinking about what I watched.
"Is it good?" *shakes head, miserably*
I can't stop thinking about Iwona Petry.

Because, well. Szamanka is really extraordinary, it's an unhinged work of genius, but genius, especially when applied to filmmakers, is not always a benign thing. What if the film I watched twice back to back because it was so amazing was not showing a woman acting the part of someone traumatised, but a woman actually traumatised? What if she was being forced to abase herself for real? There are only the rumours and allegations. And Zuławski, who died in 2016, categorically denied them all (well, nearly all. He freely copped to the teddy bear thing, which is frankly weird – I mean, what the hell, Andrzej Zuławski!?) and has stories of his own of Petry’s bad behaviour on set. He talks about her skipping off to India for a holiday in the middle of filming, for example. But then, he’s not terribly positive about Boguslaw Linda, either: “He’s a good actor – when he’s sober. Or half-sober.”

Zuławski reckoned the movie is feminist. And, well, Szamanka’s script was written by feminist activist and writer (and anthropology major) Manuela Gretkowska, so Zuławski could say from the beginning that it's a feminist film. And I do think, from my own flawed position, that a feminist reading isn’t hard.
At that point, for me, it was a metaphor of a relationship between a mature male and young female, how to brainwash somebody with claims of love or experience; how this young woman can defend herself, and how she was deceived.
– Manuela Gretkowska, interviewed by Daniel Bird
I wonder if Gretkowska was completely happy with the film that came out of her script. Certainly, in the interview on the 2011 Mondo Vision DVD, she is, to put it mildly, diplomatic.
I was new to scriptwriting and I felt touched by the fictional characters coming from the script – usually there is so much more on the screen than in the book, especially in Zuławski’s films, so I was watching something that I’d written, but also something more, something created by another artist. It was quite an experience for me. It was Zuławski’s vision, so it would be ridiculous to judge it in terms of how he implemented my script.
– Manuela Gretowska, interviewed by Daniel Bird
One possibly telling detail is that as a first time screenwriter, Gretkowska didn’t bother to write any of the sex scenes, and that when she felt that the script called for one, she just wrote “sex scene” and assumed that the director and cast would know what to do.

(On the other hand, Zuławski’s take was that “she did the script, I only directed. No masks.”) 

Asked about the performances, Gretkowska talks a little about Boguslaw Linda, the biggest Polish star of his generation, and how he acted against type here, but about his costar, she only says: “Iwona Petry was chosen by the director, who had his own concept to fulfil. She was exactly what he wanted.” And nothing more. When asked what she thinks of the movie today, Gretkowska avoids supplying any answer to the question, instead saying something that amounts to, “You should have asked me when I wrote it, 20-odd years ago.”

(Zuławski claims in his interview on the disc that he and Gretkowska were friends. In hers, Gretkowska calls him "Mr Zuławski", and again, I don't quite know what to make of that.)

I’m not going to lie, there's so much evaded or unsaid that it’s one of the most fascinating behind the scenes interviews I’ve ever seen. 

And there's Isabelle Adjani’s experience with Possession. One film where a woman on set hints (and to be fair only hints, nothing more) that the director abused her to get a performance, that's a bit concerning. Two? That's a pattern.

So where does that leave me? Szamanka is brilliant. It's powerful and strange and compelling and feels like living with trauma does. It feels real. Iwona Petry’s performance is up there with Isabelle Adjani’s in Possession. It feels like you’re watching someone living with trauma. It is cathartic. As I understand it, critical consensus back when Szamanka was released was that it was Zuławski’s worst film. I think that this is changing now (especially due to writers like Janisse). I think it’s an amazing film. I’ve watched it twice. I’m going to watch it again, if only because I’m curious to see what the second set of subtitles are like on this insanely lush DVD boxset I have and because dammit it wasn’t cheap so I’m getting all the value added content out of this thing, but also because it is stunning. It is amazing. It's the most I’ve spent on a single movie, sight unseen, for ages, and I’m not regretting a penny.

But what am I really watching?
Seriously, look at this thing.
Whose identity is being torn to pieces here, the shamaness or the neophyte actor, found in a café? And this happens in the film industry, doesn't it, all the time, the way it grinds up women and spits them out, the way people like me buy the fancy DVD box sets with the envelopes full of lobby cards and the celebratory books full of seductively glossy photos and erudite essays. And we watch the movies, and say, what a great movie. What a work of art. So true. So revealing. So raw. So brave. “A film without masks.” “A film without brakes.”

OK, look, when you're a Proper Film Critic writing about film, there's a way you treat things that happen behind the scenes, and there's some stuff, traditionally, you talk about and there's some stuff you don't talk about. Some ways in which you separate the art and the artist and some ways you don't. And that's a wobbly and inchoate sort of line, and apparently you learn all about it in Proper Film Critic School, but since, as I keep reminding myself and you, that I'm not a Proper Film Critic, I never went to Proper Film Critic School, so I don't know how to apply that line. So I’m here, not knowing what to do with this fantastic, wild, strange, pagan film. Not knowing whether I’m allowed to love it as much as I am inclined to.

It comes back to this: I keep thinking about Iwona Petry. I keep thinking about her performance, and what a tragedy it was that she didn’t really have a cinematic career that went anywhere, because she is amazing in this film.

Iwona Petry probably wouldn't thank me for writing this. By all accounts she’s doing fine as a writer now. 

But I watched Szamanka, twice so far, back to back, and it stuck with me. It's over the top, and odd, and raw, and powerful.

And I keep thinking about Iwona Petry.