While literary inspiration played a prominent role in the early career of Polish director Andrzej Zuławski — resulting in outright adaptations in the case of his first two short television films, Pavoncello (1969) and The Story of Triumphant Love (1969), as well as L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) and his rudely interrupted production of On the Silver Globe (1988) — possibly his most ambitious attempt came at the midpoint of his career with La femme publique (1984). Co-scripted by French writer Dominique Garnier, the film is an adaptation both of Garnier’s memoirs of her early years in Paris, and of Dostoyevsky’s chaotic, reactionary opus from 1872, Бесы (Bésy) aka Demons. (Though it is often translated as The Possessed, I’ve decided to go with the more literal title, partly because “possessed” is misleadingly passive in the context of the novel’s plot.) This might seem like a fundamental contradiction — as Garnier’s memoirs focus on themes of femininity, sexuality, and art, while Dostoyevsky’s novel is a hysterical meditation on political violence — but it’s a contradiction that is not only key to understanding the film but lies at the heart of much of the director’s output in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
La femme publique follows Ethel (Valérie Kaprisky), a model and actress auditioning for a part in an upcoming filmic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Despite her inexperience, she is hired by the charismatic yet abusive young director, Lucas Kesling (Francis Huster), a Czech émigré working in Paris. They begin a complicated sexual relationship as the production gets underway, and the stress of both causes Ethel to slowly lose touch with reality. She also finds herself drawn to Milan (Lambert Wilson), another Czech émigré who mistakes her for his missing wife, Elena (Diane Delors), a role Ethel willingly accepts. But she comes to believe that Elena may have been murdered and it seems Milan has been drawn into a plot of political violence.
On the surface level, La femme publique has some of Zuławski’s cinematic signatures: it essentially focuses on a tortured love triangle and it deals with the lives of artists. But — like The Devil and On the Silver Globe — it can be frustratingly abstruse and cannot be seen as a direct adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel, but rather something of a spiritual successor. Never an easy director to pin down in terms of genre, where some of Zuławski’s earlier films experimented with elements of the horror genre — such as The Third Part of the Night, The Devil, and Possession — La femme publique abandons that approach for a blend of drama, romance, and political thriller that simply can’t be classified.
Perhaps intentionally, this has parallels to Dostoyevsky’s complex maneuvering in Demons, which is also a dizzying blend of genres, themes, and subplots. James Goodwin wrote, in Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons: Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-Century Russia, “Demons is not a historical novel in any traditional sense, but a complex, hybrid entity that combines elements of separate, unfinished projects into a synthetic ‘chronicle’ of political conspiracy. It is a work, moreover, in which suicide, rape, grisly murder and sadism mix rather unexpectedly with comedy and even buffoonery” (3). Like Dostoyevsky, Zuławski divides screen time between two major (though overlapping) plots with terrorism and political violence as a strong subtext. I think a grasp on the novel and its themes is key to understanding the film, far more so than Garnier’s memoirs, for instance.
And as with Zuławski’s final film, Cosmos (2015), he was ahead of the curve with his choice of source material. Goodwin explains that Demons was actually one of Dostoyevsky’s least popular works for the majority of the twentieth century, particularly in Soviet countries, and it was not widely read until several years after the release of La femme publique. He wrote, “the novel’s circulation in Russia did not begin to meet popular demand until the final years of perestroika, which saw the first separate edition of Demons in nearly a century. Over the next six years, from 1989 through 1994, Russian publishing houses produced at least eighteen new editions of Demons” (1). This was largely due to the difficult and controversial nature of the book, which is packed with scalding indictments of political violence, terrorism, and the open-ended, ineffectual sort of leftism that made the book just as relevant in the 1970s as it was in the decade of its release, the 1870s.
Demons initially follows two aged friends, the failed academic Stepan Verkhovensky and his demanding benefactress Varvara Stavrogina, and the goings on in their small town. But it soon comes to focus on their respective, somewhat estranged sons, Pyotr Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin. While the younger Verkhovensky is involved in some sort of underground revolutionary organization, Stavrogin is the subject of much gossip about his scandalous behavior, which includes a possible affair with the beautiful Lizaveta Tushina and a secret marriage to the mentally unstable Marya Lebyadkina, who is essentially the town fool. Verkhovensky is devoted to Stavrogin, but cultivates a group of young co-conspirators and even a local following that includes the governor’s wife. His scheming results in chaos at a town ball, arson, and a dizzying number of murders that climaxes with Stavrogin’s suicide.
In Demons, Dostoyevsky describes the terrorists led by Verkhovensky as “nihilists,” though this isn’t really accurate but reflects the political climate in Russia in the 1860s. In Margaret Heller’s essay, “Dostoyevsky on Terror and the Question of the West” in Terror and the Arts: Artistic, Literary, and Political Interpretations of Violence from Dostoyevsky to Abu Ghraib, she explained, “The thought that terrorism and nihilism belong together is not a new one, for there is a close connection between the history of the two terms, both in their origins in late eighteenth-century Europe and in their elaboration during the nineteenth century in Russia. They were, in fact, coined roughly in the same period, the time of the French Revolution. A connection between the philosophy of nihilism and the politics of terror was made by Joseph de Maistre, a Catholic conservative, who argued that the former’s assertion of human freedom from authority had, as its necessary consequence, the latter. Maistre’s denunciations of theophobia, ‘the insurrection against God,’ nihilism (rienisme), and any belief in political progress due to human enlightenment, were especially influential in Russia as the result of his period of exile in that country” (84-85).
Demons was actually inspired by influential anarchist Michael Bakunin and the revolutionary Sergei Nechaev, particularly the relationship between the two men, Nechaev’s crimes, and his later trial. Heller wrote, “Nechaev was a particularly unscrupulous figure, who had managed to charm Bakunin, and he became the model for the character Peter Verkhovensky” (87). There are strong parallels between the two, namely a talent for manipulation, a tendency to turn on collaborators, and murder. Little in the way of actual terrorist actions occur in the novel, though, and much of the conspirators’ time is devoted to verbal conjecture and secret meetings, with one important exception. Heller wrote, “They possess no common ideology, but rather display a range of theoretical positions. Their leader, Peter Verkhovensky, decides to solidify the loyalty of his followers by having them participate in the killing of one of their number whom Peter has falsely accused of treachery, just as Nechaev did in real life” (89).
As in the novel, the use of political terrorism in the film is murky and constantly overlaps with the events of the characters’ private lives, particularly their fraught romantic relationships. Zuławski’s films are frequently described as hysterical and while this is really too limiting of a description, he certainly captures the spirit of hysteria and frenetic energy that is at the heart of Demons. The novel’s somewhat anonymous narrator relates the conspirators’ reaction to a certain scene — an act of arson that temporarily covers up a double murder — that sums up the spirit of the film as well: “’It’s all incendiarism! It’s nihilism! If anything is burning, it’s nihilism!’ I heard almost with horror; and though there was nothing to be surprised at, yet actual madness, when one sees it, always gives one a shock.”
Though it is relatively restrained, Zuławski does weave his own tale of political violence in with Dostoyevsky’s. Kesling explains that he wants to adapt the novel because it is “a prophetic tale about those who try to change the world through violence,” and in a strange way he becomes the embodiment of both Stavrogin and Verkhovensky. Zuławski selects key scenes from Demons to include as the film-within-a-film and the majority of these have to do with political content. The scene of one of Verkhovensky’s meetings is brilliantly filmed as a sweaty match in an indoor tennis court, where it is declared that “murder, blackmail, extortion, bombs” will be added to their agenda, and a list of people to be killed should be drafted immediately.
In addition to this film-within-a-film, Zuławski makes clever use of television broadcasts and media, a technique he would return to for La fidélité (2001). This is where Ethel learns of the murder of a woman with gold high heels who has had her fingerprints burned off with acid —who she believes is Kesling’s former lover, Elena, that he has murdered and whose identity she will soon come to accidentally assume — as well as the assassination of the Archbishop. The man is shot to death while getting into a car at a party given in his honor, which is seen on TV with a glimpse of Kesling in the frame. It is implied that the director not only filmed, but also orchestrated, this event.
Ethel also physically takes part in this sense of escalating violence: barely 20 minutes into the film, she and Kesling are caught a riotous protest in the streets, she and Milan are later involved in car chase which ends in a shootout and an explosion, and Zuławski lingers over the filming of a key concluding scene from Demons, where the character Shatov is shot in the head and executed. It’s important to note that Milan is essentially a stand in for Shatov and the two have an overwhelming number of similarities.
And just as Dostoyevsky was reacting to Russian radicals in the nineteenth century, so La femme publique is a reaction to the revolutionary leftism that grew out of what is now known as the New Left. A loose movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s that resulted in much positive change — including advances in civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech — it also had a perhaps inevitably violent side. What began, for many, as a sort of post-Marxist protest against Stalinism, the Cold War, and the war in Vietnam, among other things, resulted in mass student protests in England, France, Germany, and the US. This led to the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Parisian uprisings the same year that effectively shut down the city and even, temporarily, the national government, as well as rioting in Poland that resulted in deaths and extensive property damage.
But this took an even darker turn in the ‘70s and early ‘80s with the emergence of several radical, militant groups working throughout Europe, many of whom were responsible for wide-scale terror campaigns: assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, arson, attacks on embassies, airplane hijacking, and even bank robberies. Organizations like the German Rote Armee Fraktion, the Irish Republican Army, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — and its most visible member, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez aka Carlos the Jackal — were instrumental in shaping contemporary understandings of terrorism.
Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, who, like Zuławski, was kicked out of the country and forced to emigrate west, wrote often about the contradiction at the heart of leftism, particularly how the idea of utopia could so quickly become a fascistic quest for personal power for a select few. In “The Concept of the Left,” he wrote, “A utopia, if it proves so remote from reality that the wish to enforce it would be grotesque, would lead to a monstrous deformation, to socially harmful changes threatening the freedom of man. The Left, if it succeeds, would then turn into its opposite—the Right” (147). It seems to be this violent, ugly transformation that Zuławski is attacking in La femme publique. Certainly in later interviews, he was deeply critical of anyone that supported such organizations, directing a fair amount of vitriol towards German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was rumored to have financially supported the Rote Armee Fraktion.
As in Demons, these historical organizations, and La femme publique, the central revolutionary figures seem to be on more of an underhanded quest for power than really desiring any long-lasting societal transformations. Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” While Kesling is ultimately revealed to be secretly orchestrating a political assassination, he also uses these principles on his film set and in his private relationship with Ethel; coercion, humiliation, violence, and even blackmail become regular occurrences. He says to her, “You’re mine. I made you. I can take you back or send you back whenever I want.”
Mary McCarthy’s sentiments on Verkhovensky in “Ideas and the Novel: Dostoevsky’s ‘The Possessed’” for the London Review of Books could easily be applied to Kesling. She wrote, “The only demon is Verkhovensky, who believes in nothing, has no ideas or principles. If he is an Idea, which I wonder about, it is an idea without specific content – a principle devoted (but not dedicated) to destruction. He is aware of a lack in himself, which is why he turns to Stavrogin. The nucleus needs a centre, and he himself cannot be that, for he is not within but without – a manipulator and strategist.” But the words of Joyce Carol Oates, writing about Demons for The Georgia Review, also ring true for Zuławski’s fictional director: “A demonic frenzy is loosed about him and through him, yet Stavrogin is dying of boredom. Like Raskolnikov in his cramped cell of a room, Stavrogin, though he wanders through Europe, though he makes a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, and visits Egypt, and even Iceland, goes nowhere at all: he is suffocating, doomed.”
In uniting the two figures of Stavrogin and Verkhovensky within one character, Kesling, and fleshing out the romantic angle, Zuławski draws an elegant if jarring parallel between the themes of the two books that inspired La femme publique. On one hand, there is the story of the Pygmalion-like relationship between a megalomaniacal director and an inexperienced actress who is objectified almost to the point of farce; on the other, a tale of political violence orchestrated by a nihilistic fantasist. And just as Stavrogin commits suicide at the end of the novel — leaving a note that says, “No is to blame, I did it myself” — Kesling actually hangs himself while filming the same scene. But, very much unlike the events of Demons, Zuławski’s first major female protagonist is left standing, theoretically in control of her own destiny.