I recently had the opportunity to watch this art house classic in an actual art house, the Walter Reade Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center. It’s a wonderful repertory house with fair projection, fair sound, and plush reclining seats. The popcorn didn’t smell so stale either. The theater was packed (third showing) with a combination of gore-freaks, art-house geeks, and Julliard students taking time off from their busy schedules to partake in the human peep show that was Andrzej Zulawski’s life at the time. Coming off of a brutal divorce, Zulawski put pen to paper and created a tract for young marrieds teetering on the brink of acrimony. His identity completely submerged within subtext (within subtext), Zulawski tells a fairly complicated (or “difficult” as Adjani’s character, Anna, would say) story of a man who cannot bear to let his wife go as she pursues an affair with a mysterious lover, which turns out to be a hideous creature born of her carnality. Sam Neill is effective as Mark, Anna’s super-spy husband, who hires a detective to track her down and find the lair of her lover. When the detective fails to check in, Mark gets even more suspicious as he slowly loses his mind and joins his wife in collective dementia.
Much has been written of Adjani’s performance (which won the Palm D’Or for Best Actress Award at Cannes), which splits fans and foes alike, either bordering on hysteria, or crossing the border entirely. I think the performance is just right, since we don’t get to witness true hysterics in contemporary cinema anymore. It’s almost a lost art form. Regardless, you have to commend a leading lady who plays a sex scene with a sticky, slimy octopus-like Carlo Rambaldi (“E.T.”) creation as her leading man gawks at her from around a corner.
There are some hilarious bits to the film as well. The surprising martial arts ability of Anna’s previous lover, Heinrich (played hilariously by Heinz Bennent), the ambiguously gay detective duo who both wind up victims of Anna’s new lover, and Sam Neill’s well-choreographed body language and physical movements that stay true to the continuity of his occupation.
The first time I saw the film was in a heavily edited (for television no less) version that ran in American theaters two years after its first European release. The director’s cut restores some 40 minutes of film and rearranges the edits into a much cleaner form that embraces the narrative, rather than hacking it to pieces as the American distributors did previously. There are some scenes that run a little too long. Adjani’s whaling miscarriage in a subway station springs to mind. On the whole, however, the film stands up and emerges as more than remarkable. Those wonderful people at Anchor Bay have released a collector’s edition DVD with commentary by Zulawski, so I’m hoping this review will persuade gore fans and true film buffs to check it out.