Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Szamanka-Shamanka, film by Andrzej Żuławski

Essentially a feminist film. Shot in a very modernistic way, had to watch it twice to get it because I wasn't prepared for the format. Screenplay by avant-garde Polish feminist author Mauela Gretkowska. The story follows a young woman's journey from abuse and alienation committed by male society through to empowerment and autonomy told through the allegory of shamanic initiation. Szamanka draws heavily on the work Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade. The shamanic process as outlined by Eliade starts with a person having a basic crisis, followed by a mental breakdown of sorts, but the way that the prospective shaman deals with the breakdown is the instructive part: instead of repressing the instability the shaman to be accepts it and works through it to the other side, coming back to the world transformed through knowing the secrets of the other reality that are accessible through extreme mental states.

Szamanka brutally communicates this. In the third scene the co-protagonist of the movie, who she's renting a room from, rapes her. Then she goes to her boyfriend and he only wants sex. Then she goes to her family for money and her mom doesn't listen. Men hit on her at random on the train. She goes back to the guy, Michael, who teaches anthropology, and is consequently sexually used and abused over and over again, with all her attempts to express her feelings or to try to turn the situation into something less exploitative not heard or perceived. She starts acting very strangely in order to try to get Michael to acknowledge her at all, screaming and yelling at random, but this only makes him look at her like an interesting show piece. They go to his fiances birthday party which despite all the sexual violence that Michael has committed is very normal and high bourgeois. She leaves. During the party Michael gets a phone call that his brother, who was a priest, has committed suicide and he decides to go see the body and to straighten out his brother's affairs. This proves to be the turning point in the movie.

Now that he's vulnerable, because the sexual violence started through her vulnerability related to needing housing, the balance of power shifts a bit, and he eventually comes to see her as a transformative figure. During all this he's been analyzing an ancient shaman found in an old peat bog in the area and becomes convinced that she's a shaman, a natural shaman, and holds the key to a more balanced and pure way of life through her wildness. But this turns out to be a misperception. She is indeed a shaman but not in the sense of being something other than a human being. He doesn't perceive that what's going on is change in her personality brought on by exterior circumstances and that the shaman characteristics that he sees are just an aspect of that. He sees the effects without possessing the inner understanding.

Ultimately, he's dragged down by the want to become a shaman himself, in his weakened state brought on by his brother's death, to understand it and to use her as a subject to get that understanding by. First he withdraws from his job at the University, then he decides to become a priest because he doesn't understand life anymore. Once he declares that she kills him through hitting him on the back of the head with a can of ground meat and then takes a spoon and eats his brains, completing her initiation. The shaman in the university lab that he had been working on had his head bashed in as well. The progress from beginning to end can be seen as an arc charting her relationship to male society, from being exploited and ignored, to getting the upper hand due to its weakness, and finally becoming its superior by literally consuming its essence, its brains, integrating it into a new found sense of self and of stability. At the end she walks off and repeats the same scene that the movie started with, her ordering meat, including brains, from a counter by the subway, the same situation repeating but with a very different context now.

The film, besides the many stylistic innovations, has the same subject matter as Roman Polanski's film "Repulsion", which charts a young woman's descent into madness and then into killing male acquaintances due to the pressures of a sexist society, which are graphically depicted through hallucinatory special effects. But the end of "Repulsion" has the star becoming totally mute and unwilling to move at all, while there's actually a successful resolution to it in Szamanka. And the hallucinatory, mentally ill state of "Repulsion" is looked at as being a rational response to how society is.

Good film. Unfortunately, it's only available in PAL DVD Region 5, no matter what the used DVD people tell you. It's the region assigned to Russia. But if you can swing it through reprogramming your DVD player to play PAL and to play region free (you can look it up on the web, all you have to do is enter the right code) you'll be in for a treat.

1 comment:

Captain Tobias Slater, witch locator said...

Thank you. I have read every review of this film i can find, and this is one of the very very few with any interesting insight or understanding of the film. While other reviewers miss all of the important points of the piece, you covered them ll and added many new ideas and interpretations I hadnt thought of before. I epeclkt appreciate your tae on it as afeminist work. I saw it this way too, and that persoective led to many laughs, confirmed by Zulawski in the dvd interview saying he sees hus films as more comedic than others see them. From a femint perspective, ths movie is hilarious.

2 points of yours i differ from, the first copulation doesnt look like a rape to me, though the power relationship is truly unequal, but he is not her landlord, rather he is trying to fill his brothers abandoned apartment to prevent problems with the blind elderly landlady.

No doubt, its a bit rapey in tone, but she initiates the intimate level of physical contact and remains so entirely passive, her choice or lack of choice is impossible to determine. Her sexual passivity is the same with her boyfriend. Through her relationship with Michel she becomes more and more active as you say.

However, there can be no missing the point of the ending! Now thats showing those male chauvenist pigs!