La femme publique (1984) is a film about a woman drawn into two self-destructive relationships with men who are corrupted from within by their vanity and their own hunger for political power. Andrzej Żuławski’s erotic thrillers (even when he is adapting Dostoevsky in this case) seem to hinge on telling the story of a woman’s fight to survive a misogynistic world. Schadenfreude seems, to me at least, to be what makes these films so terrifyingly electrifying. La femme publique is exploitation cinema as high art, retreading ground that Żuławski covered before and would retrace again in his films. The main thing that sets La femme publique apart from Żuławski’s other films of the eighties is that it is explicitly political.
From a filmmaking perspective, La femme publique is a work of true mastery. The long tracking shots through smoke, the kinetic pans and zooms, and the synthesis between musical score and montage are all terribly effecting or startlingly precise. Żuławski is so inventive that I have seen his work echoed in films by Christopher Nolan, Béla Tarr, and Sam Mendes. As grotesque and nightmarishly manic as a film like La femme publique is, it is also intoxicating.
One begins to suspect that this is the point; that this is how Żuławski translates Dostoevsky’s anti-nihilist text into images. Every character in this film is either so despicable or so compromised by those around them that any sense of real identity at all has been erased and now they only function as grotesques. This certainly fits with Żuławski’s self-reflexive vision of the filmmaker played by Francis Huster. Huster’s director character is toxic in every believable way and so flamboyant about it that he becomes a perverted mirror image of a Looney Tunes character or comic strip villain. Valérie Kaprisky likewise inhabits the role of willing victim and sexual object to such a degree that she becomes a sort of abstraction; a horrifying phantom image of herself if you will.
Żuławski films ugliness beautifully, which is why he can be such a difficult filmmaker. La femme publique, like so many of his films, is painful or even triggering to watch. But the images are gorgeous and will resonate in the mind’s eye for a long time.