Zuławski spent the majority of the ‘80s making films in France that focused on the nature of performance and centered on unusual, if compelling female protagonists — La femme publique (1984), L’amour braque (1985), and Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989) — but thanks to the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, he was eventually able to return to the country he had been exiled from since roughly 1972. He initially left on account of The Devil (1972), which was banned by the communist government, and returned briefly in the late ‘70s to begin making the aborted On the Silver Globe. That production was cancelled by the late, not lamented Minister of Culture, Janusz Wilhelmi, when the film was nearly complete; Zuławski left the country to settle in France and was not able to finish that film for another ten years.
This devastating experience, combined with a disintegrating marriage, fueled the frenzied agony of Possession (1981), and it’s easy to see how the director would have approached a return to his home country with mixed feelings. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Szamanka (1996) is Zuławski’s first film since Possession to really mine the depths of personal hysteria in a similar way. Merriam-Webster defines hysteria as, “a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions.” While plenty of Zuławski’s other characters have outbursts, tantrums, and exhibit behavior that could conservatively be described as eccentric, Zuławski’s most extravagant explorations of emotional turbulence can be found in the protagonists of a loose trilogy: Leszek Teleszynski as Jakub in The Devil, Isabelle Adjani as Anna in Possession, and Iwona Petry as the Italian in Szamanka. These films also represent the director’s few forays into the horror genre, though of course he adapted it to his own ends.
In Szamanka, a young woman known only as the Italian (Iwona Petry) moves from rural Poland to Warsaw to study engineering. Thanks to a chance encounter, she rents an apartment from an anthropology professor, Michał (Bogusław Linda), and they begin a sudden, somewhat violent sexual relationship. Michał gradually becomes obsessed with her, particularly as their escapades become more extreme, and he abandons his fiancee (Agnieszka Wagner) and thus far conventional life. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues have excavated the remains of a two-thousand-year-old mummy, who Michał discovers was a shaman that died mysteriously. As the Italian resists his attempts to domesticate and tame her, he fixates on understanding who the shaman was, how he lived, and, most importantly, how he died. But when Michał and the researchers eat the shaman’s cache of hallucinogenic mushrooms, it propels events to a violent conclusion.
First, though not necessarily foremost, it’s important to view Szamanka as Zuławski’s return to Poland and as his cinematic reckoning with the country after years of exile. And though it was shot in Poland and is a Polish-language film, this is technically a Polish-French-Swiss coproduction; like the later Cosmos, the director was forced to seek funding elsewhere, which is itself a comment on the state of Polish culture and how little things had changed since the dissolution of the People’s Republic of Poland and the Polish United Workers’ Party in 1989. Szamanka is awash with themes of religious, moral, and social conservatism; and though the Italian is a complex, controversial character — as are all Zuławski’s female leads — she primarily stands as the physical manifestation of a reaction against traditional values, a force of nature who will tear open Michał’s world.
In “Beyond Polish Moral Realism: The Subversive Cinema of Andrzej Zuławski” for Polish Cinema in a Transnational Context, Michael Goddard wrote, “Zuławski has referred to this as a film made ‘without masks,’ and this certainly seems to be the case in its brutal presentation of the situation of contemporary postcommunist Poland. In this film, gangsterism and violence seem to be lurking behind every ugly corner, and everything from intimate relationships to scientific inquiry and the Catholic Church seems irremediably corrupted” (254). The film provides an uneasy juxtaposition between science and religion. If there is a unifying trend in terms of the occupations of Zuławski’s characters, the majority of them are artists, though that is notably not the case with Szamanka (On the Silver Globe is another important exception). The Italian is a student in mechanics at the School of Engineering, while several other characters are doctors, scientists, or anthropologists. Much of the film is set in hospitals, classrooms, labs, or industrial centers (like a meat processing plant).
In what seems to be a subtle, Pasolini-esque nod to the consuming nature of contemporary industry, the first engineering lecture the Italian attends is essentially on the function of machines to “satisfy man’s needs.” Of dubious scientific value, it is rife with sexual metaphors. The professor says that “saliva, the perfect liquid, is characterized by its transparency and lack of viscosity”; an example of the film’s attempts to bind together themes of mechanical, biological, and metaphysical value inherent in both man and machines. At one point, Michał tells the Italian, “You’re like a little machine. Eat, sleep, fuck.”
While the religious, particularly Catholic, themes linger in the background, the strange relationship of science and religion within the film culminates not only with Michał’s profession itself, anthropology, but with the study of the shaman mummy. The Italian crashes one of Michał’s lectures early in the film — and proceeds to lick and hyperventilate all over a glass display until she passes out, in one of the film’s many artful uses of saliva — while Michał discusses the social relevance of shamanism. He says that “man is man thanks to his imagination, not his hammer,” and that the spirit of the shaman lingers inside modern humanity. He says it is thanks to shamans that we “have the chance to be human, which means to have some imagination.” The topic for the following week’s seminar, he tells the class, is “survival in this dehumanized, materialistic world,” ultimately the central theme of Szamanka.
While many of Zuławski’s previous films concern characters who are outsiders in the sense that they are exiles and immigrants — sometimes stumbling over language or cultural barriers — the Italian’s foreignness results in the fact that she refuses, or is unable, to assimilate with this “dehumanized, materialistic world.” Based on a script from Polish writer and politician Manuela Gretkowska, the film links together the Italian’s perceived foreignness — “the Italian” is a nickname that she was given because she served very hot pizza where she formerly worked as a waitress — through her rural origins and her gender. She is the only major female character in an oppressively masculine world.
The two female characters that haunt the film’s periphery, the Italian’s mother and Michał’s fiancee, are polar opposites, respectively representative of lower class, rural and upper class, urban stereotypes. The Italian does not even fall somewhere between the two, but exists in a seemingly different plane entirely, one in which she is the only inhabitant. In Ursula Chowaniec’s Women’s Voices and Feminism in Polish Cultural Memory, she wrote, “The characters appearing in the early novels of Gretkowska were women who evidently questioned gender, and the sexual and national stereotypes imposed on them by the dominant patriarchal culture. Many of these characters resembled the writer herself, playing brilliantly with some facts from her own biography. They were emigrants, who, liberated from the Polish identity that had previously hindered their freedom, now breathed an atmosphere very different from the one they had experienced in the stifling Polish countryside” (114).
The Italian’s home — apparently Czestochowa, in southern Poland — is a place of squalid decay, choked with poverty; she tells her mother that she is determined to leave and get an education. The few female characters presented or discussed in these scenes are young, unwed mothers or abused wives. Chowaniec explained that in Gretkowska’s novels, as in her script for Szamanka, “femininity was an uncomfortable, temporary costume” (114). The Italian is a radical figure because she refuses to be defined by social constructions of gender, a notion that links back to a character’s assertion in Possession that “the only thing women have in common is menstruation.”
Szamanka was panned by critics upon its release — particularly Polish ones, apparently — and much of the furor seems to surround the film’s depictions of gender and sexuality. Goddard wrote, “Critics have also seen the film as misogynistic in its reduction of the female figure to an almost animalistic level of eroticism and violence” (254). He went on to explain that, in typically sensationalist fashion, the media reaction was not an attempt to understand or engage with the film’s themes, but was a response largely focused on the perceived mistreatment of actress Iwona Petry on set. With Szamanka, Zuławski’s depictions of identity and gender are as rich and complex as ever — supported by Gretkowska’s provocative script — though this film in particular seems determined to court controversy.
It does contain Zuławski’s most explicit depictions of sexuality — excepting perhaps the various porn shoots in L’important c’est d’aimer — and the greatest number of sex scenes. These scenes, some of which were quite graphic, apparently caused a furor and the film was sometimes referred to by contemporaries as The Last Tango in Warsaw. This connection, which is quite a lazy one, is primarily based on the fact that both Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Szamanka depict a couple beginning an illicit affair in an apartment and that the (heterosexual) couple engages in anal sex. In Szamanka this is depicted as an unpleasant, but possibly pleasurable surprise for the Italian; it is difficult to make sense of her visceral, quite unconventional reactions to sex or orgasm. And I think the fundamental trouble with Szamanka (which could be leveled at many of Zuławski’s other films) is its sheer unconventionality.
Taken at face value, the ‘90s hardly lacked sexually explicit films. Hollywood alone boasted titles — many of them receiving NC-17 ratings — like Henry & June (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993), Color of Night (1994), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Showgirls (1995), Bound (1996), Gia (1998), and Wild Things (1998). These films boasted themes of rape, sexual abuse, prostitution, lesbianism, nymphomania, voyeurism, and transvestism, frequently linking sexual transgression with criminality, mental illness, addiction, and a fundamental sense of moral degeneracy. While I have no tolerance for anyone who views Zuławski as a misogynist, he was undeniably a provocateur, particularly in his depictions of gender and sexuality. Notably, he does not ever subject us to the infantile and fundamentally conservative correlation of transgressiveness with immorality favored by Hollywood.
But even more overtly explicit European films from the same period, like Bigas Luna’s Las edades de Lulú (1990) aka Ages of Lulu or Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’amant (1992) aka The Lover — notably both based on books by controversial female authors — have conventionally melodramatic structures. Like Szamanka, both films focus on the relationship between a younger woman and an older man. While Ages of Lulu follows the protagonist’s sexual odyssey that introduces her to her husband and later causes her to leave him, The Lover is concerned with the affair between a poor French teenager in Vietnam and her older Chinese lover, who is destined to marry an heiress. Unlike Szamanka, both end with the female protagonist’s return to conventional morality: Lulu is rescued from sexual violence by her husband and reunites with him, while the Young Girl (as she is known in The Lover, in typical Marguerite Duras fashion) returns to France and her lover goes through with his arranged marriage.
Szamanka, on the other hand, is remarkable in its determination to buck convention. While many of Zuławski’s films feature an early scene where the two central characters have a chance meeting — often they look deeply into each other’s eyes — and immediate attraction occurs; here it just happens to take place while they’re having sex. In less than five minutes into the running time, while Michał is showing the Italian the apartment she will soon rent, she is naked. He doesn’t even bother to remove her clothing, but roughly moves it aside. They begin to have sex so suddenly after meeting that it at first feels like an assault. Though it’s obviously a shock to her, she doesn’t push him away and he comments how wet she is.
Their relationship has an undeniably sadomasochistic element and is more obviously about dominance and control than any of the relationships in Zuławski’s other films. Between this element, the Italian’s perhaps unintentionally assertive sexuality, and a perceived sense of promiscuity about her, it’s understandable that some critics and audience members would initially feel compelled to describe the film as misogynistic, however unfounded the claim. Zuławski’s use of sexuality and gender relations within the film are not controversial because they betray the director’s fundamental misogyny, but because they are deeply critical of Polish society (a polemic that could also apply to other conservative cultures). Goddard accurately described Szamanka as reflecting “the underlying power dynamics, violence, and prevailing misogynist gender relations in contemporary Poland” (255).
In Linda Williams’ insightful academic analysis of pornography, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” she confronts two sides of one feminist debate: pornography as inherently anti-feminist and pornography as a critical component to that idea of “sexual liberation as the beginning of a solution” (15). Much of this rhetoric applies to the criticisms leveled against Szamanka. Williams argued that a lot of anti-pornography feminist discourse is about establishing rules and guidelines for sexual behavior and the nature of desire itself. She wrote, “The radical, utopian dreams of achieving a better, more egalitarian set of sexual arrangements too easily slips into what Alice Echols calls a new ‘feminist biological determinism’ and what Carole Vance calls ‘setting norms’” (26).
As with many of Zuławski’s films, one of Szamanka’s most important themes is the fundamentally limiting, constricting — and thus unfulfilling or even self-negating — nature of conventional relationships. I’ve already written about how Anna’s hysteria in Possession is the result of the character’s violent straining against the yoke of romantic ownership and the Italian’s approach to emotional and physical intimacy can be seen as a continuation of that concept. A key early example can be found in one of the first romantic exchanges between the Italian and Michał. During a moment of public tenderness, she spits in his mouth and then licks her saliva off of his lips, completely sidestepping romantic convention.
The Italian’s physical manifestations of emotion — something seen in all of Zuławski’s protagonists to varying degrees — as expressed in Petry’s contortions and spastic gestures can really only be compared to those of Małgorzata Braunek, Zuławski’s former wife and his first female lead in films like The Third Part of the Night (1971) and The Devil. During sex, the Italian’s convulsions are far from conventionally sexy, but it is through this abandonment of convention that they become intensely erotic, the most overtly so in any of Zuławski’s films. It becomes clear through dialogue that sex with Michał has allowed her to experience orgasm for the first time and there is a certain innocence to her abandon.
Through her, Zuławski and Gretkowska seem to suggest the liberating notion that there are no fundamentally acceptable or unacceptable sexual acts, only desire and sensation. Similarly, in reference to critical outrage over Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat from 1972, Williams wrote, “Are feminists to declare themselves against representations of fellatio, against being on their knees during sex, against anything other than absolutely egalitarian forms of mutual love and affection? Indeed, what forms of sex are egalitarian?” (25). And it is in this sense that Szamanka’s erotic scenes represent the refusal to view sexuality in traditional, reductive terms.
I have to admit that Szamanka is not among my favorite of Zuławski’s films — it might actually be my least — and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why. Like so many of his fans, Possession was my introduction to the director and I was first drawn to that film because I identified so strongly with Anna. Though by all rights I should feel the same way about the Italian, I am repulsed by her willingness — even though it turns out to be superficial — to let Michał make her over; I feel much the same way about Ethel of La femme publique, with whom the Italian shares much in common. At their first meeting, he removes the hat she always wears and wipes off her lipstick; later, he buys her a ridiculous, too-short leopard print dress and takes her to a party with his colleagues (and fiancee!) so that she can see how “normal” people behave. Towards the end of the film, he even tries to train her, as one would a child, to change her eating habits.
The film’s central conflict lies in the fact that Michał — unable to break from social norms despite or perhaps because of the influence of the shaman — attempts to domesticate the Italian, a task at which he absolutely fails, though she is pliant in certain ways. On the periphery of many of Zuławski’s films is the notion that we have a choice to conform or a choice to live; in some ways, Possession is about what happens when we give in to social expectations, love causes us to lose our identity, and our previously comfortable domestic space becomes a prison. Like Possession — and many of Zuławski’s films — Szamanka is concerned with notions of home, family, and social rituals like eating and celebration, and how these express the contradictory urge to belong to someone, on one hand, and break free (violently if necessary) and assert our individual identities, on the other.
The challenge to resist or accept this civilizing urge ties back into the notion that “survival in this dehumanized, materialistic world” is, in itself, an extraordinary act. The Italian, somewhat like Ethel in La femme publique, gets the last laugh. While I’ve already written extensively about Zuławski’s themes of food in relation to his films like Boris Godounov and La note bleue, among others, they take on their most daring expression in Szamanka. The act of impulsively eating the shaman’s hallucinogenic mushrooms to gain deeper understanding leads Michał to realize that the Italian has consumed his life and he resolves to split with her. Her reaction is to bash in his skull and eat his brains, a possible repetition of the shaman’s own death thousands of years ago — tellingly, the film’s title translates to “Female Shaman,” obviously not referring to Michał’s mummy. And while I may not feel the unbridled love for Szamanka that I do for most of Zuławski’s films, I have a profound respect for his depiction of a woman existing utterly outside conventional social structures.