After Possession and Cosmos, I’ve been anxious to watch more Zulawski. There’s a World War II drama, a space-travel sci-fi cult thing, a love triangle story, and this one, with which I informally kicked off SHOCKtober this year.

A nervous, wild-eyed stranger arrives at a convent in total bloody chaos where two political prisoners are being held. He kills Thomas, saves Jacob, kidnaps a nun and rides the hell out of there, but everywhere he goes is about as hysterical as the convent, and Jacob starts murdering people with a knife. He buries his father, attacks his friends, murders his mother, gets injured in a duel, deliriously gives up his co-conspirators to the stranger, then is killed. The nun takes out the devil, who transforms into an animal as he dies. It’s all very intense, and I didn’t always follow it (nor its political allegory which got it banned), but it’s definitely something else.

Jacob and the stranger:

Jacob’s mom with snake:

Jacob and the nun costarred in Zulawski’s feature debut The Third Part of the Night the previous year, and devil Wojciech Pszoniak was in Wajda’s Danton.

Jeremiah Kipp (director of The Minions and Contact) in Slant:

Jakub is led home by his dark-clad benefactor, only to discover that everything has taken a turn toward the rancid and horrible. His father has committed suicide, his mother has transformed into a prostitute, his sister has been driven insane, and his fiancée has been forced into an arranged marriage with his best friend, who has turned into a political opportunist and turncoat. Leading him through this world turned upside down is the man in black, who continually whispers sarcastic platitudes in the hero’s ear and inciting him to acts of extreme violence … As usual for his films, the camera hurtles vertically across rooms and fields and spirals around as the actors pitch their performances at maximum volume. Society for Zulawski is just a thin veneer used to disguise the horrible sadism and unhappiness lurking inside every human heart. The Devil would make for maudlin, depressing viewing if every scene didn’t feel like explosions were being set off, sending the inmates of a madhouse free into the streets outside.

Two friends, spiky-haired Fuchs and moppy Witold, rent a room from Sabine Azéma (maintaining her manic energy from Wild Grass) and Jean-Francois Balmer (That Day, Chabrol’s Madame Bovary). They share the house with young couple Lena (Victória Guerra of Lines of Wellington) and Lucien (Andy Gillet, Celadon himself) and Azéma’s niece/maid Catherette. Then the boarders are invited on a trip to the country with the family. That’s all that happens – but not really, as most of the characters start out wired, talking nonstop and behaving strangely, and animals and people may or may not be dying, showing up hanging from trees. At the end I thought it was all quite astounding to watch, but wasn’t sure what it all meant.

K. Uhlich:

What does it all mean? Wrong question. And it’s probably absurd to even ask. Better, instead, to fully submit to Žuławski’s last symphony of insanity and paranoia, which ends, cheekily enough, with a gag reel (quite the meta final statement).

C. Huber in Cinema Scope has the best explanation of what is actually happening here:

Attempting to forge order from the chaos of the real world, Witold builds a private cosmos founded on arbitrary associations. Increasingly aware of facing a universe of possibilities, in which every connection can be randomly made, and thus is equally profound and silly … Witold is seized by an existential vertigo … In short, it becomes impossible to distinguish the awesome from the absurd, and Zulawski’s cinema of intensity has been zig-zagging with furious power between those two poles for nearly half a century.

Bonkers and gorgeous-looking, as I’d hope and expect from the late Zulawski (only the second of his films I’ve seen, after Possession), shot by young André Szankowski, who was in demand by the old masters (Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon, Oliveira’s Em Século de Energia). Based on a book by Witold Gombrowicz (which does indeed feature a writer lead character named Witold), who has also been adapted by Skolimowski (30 Door Key).

Funny that I’d watch this a couple days after The Tenant, not knowing of their connections. Both are made by Polish directors who started by working under Andrzej Wajda, both star Isabelle Adjani, involve protagonists living in apartments away from their native countries, and don’t seem like horror movies at all until they go nuts in the second half.

Sam Neill (same year he played Damien in Omen 3) returns to wife Adjani (a couple years after Herzog’s Nosferatu) in divided Berlin after a long time away on a spy job (he gets paid in wads of cash). It’s a rocky homecoming, and there’s much yelling around their son Bob, but each claims to have been faithful – until Adjani’s friend Marjie (Fassbinder star Margit Carstensen) delights in telling Neill that Adjani has another man, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent of The Last Metro and The Serpent’s Egg), an annoying new-age super-self-confident dude whose mother (Johanna Hofer of Above Suspicion and A Farewell to Arms) supports the affair (Heinrich also has a wife and kid we never see). Screaming fights ensue (“If I’d known [Heinrich] existed in this world I’d have never had Bob with you”), Adjani acts more erratic and Neill acts more obsessed (he reverse-lookups Heinrich’s address in the white pages), and I’m worried that this won’t be a horror movie at all, but a relationship drama that says women are shrews who tear apart marriages with their selfish desires (Zulawski was inspired by his own bitter divorce).

Not a good sign for your relationship when you sit at different tables:

Heinrich vs. Neill:

But then! Neill hires a private eye (who is terribly obvious when tailing people) to follow his wife and it turns out she’s staying in a third apartment, a place Heinrich doesn’t know about, and he spins bouncing off the walls when he finds out. Investigating further (by walking right in), the detective is killed by a psychic demon, followed a few scenes later by his partner (huh, a sympathetic gay character in 1981). Yes, Adjani is cheating on both men with a Scanner tentacle-demon, and there’s a pod-person connection when Neill meets his son’s schoolteacher who is the spitting image of his wife but with green glowing eyes.

Adjani takes care of the detective’s partner:

Trouble in the subway:

Neill becomes crazily thrilled by all this, gives Heinrich the demon-apartment address then kills Heinrich himself in a bathroom when the demon doesn’t finish him off. He later blows up the apartment, stabs Marjie for good measure, provokes the cops (I don’t understand how he thought ramming their cars with a taxi would end well) and plots to escape with Adjani, but she has plans of her own, finally (amidst a police shootout) revealing her new glowing-green-eyed Sam Neill pod person (“I wanted to show it to you. It is finished now”), who escapes the shootout.

Bloody Sam Neill driving a motorcycle through Berlin screaming:

Banned in the UK, though Adjani won best actress in France (over Huppert, Ardant and Deneuve) and it was nominated at Cannes the year Wajda’s Man of Iron won. I liked this an awful lot, and am looking for more Zulawski movies (Third Part of the Night, The Devil and On The Silver Globe sound good).