La Femme Publique

Year: 1984
Production Co: Hachette-Fox Productions
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Writer: Dominique Garnier/Andrzej Zulawski
Cast: Valérie Kaprisky, Lambert Wilson, Frances Huster

There are particular creative fixtures in French movies that are a bit like the old adage about the difference between porn and erotica – they're hard to articulate but you know them when you see them. This shrieking, histrionic melodrama that's about absolutely nothing at all feels like someone invented the modern French movie, and all the motifs and hallmarks you know from French movies in the postmodern era are derived from it.

It's all in the nonsensical dialogue shouted and screamed as if it's the most important and profound thing ever uttered, the complete self-absorption on the part of the characters, the extremely liberal sexual mores and the leading lady who's naked or as close to it as the script can manage at all times.

If you asked me what La Femme Publique was about, I couldn't even tell you. A young woman who wants to be an actress, Ethel (Valerie Kaprisky), gets her big break on a movie based on Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, but seems to hate every minute of it thanks to the near-hysterical, pathologically confused self-centredness of the director/star.

At the same time she falls in with another greaseball loser who's as emotionally overwrought and overplayed as the director (both of them constantly veering between wanting to shag her and scream verbal abuse at her, naturally), but this guy's joined some sort of revolutionary group, has apparently assassinated the visiting Pope and wants her to run away with him... I think? The only interesting thing about him is that he was played by a very young Lambert Wilson, the guy who went on to play The Merovingian in the Matrix sequels.

If you ask me what the themes are, I'm just as lost. A casual glance at a synopsis seems to assert that the line between acting and reality blends for Ethel, but that wasn't made in any way obvious by anything I saw. Even if it had been, it's impossible to look past the constant shouting and nonsensical dialogue. The title might be saying something about the notion that a woman's body or sexuality (Ethel's sideline is dancing naked for some older guy to film her for some reason, something else it seems she hates) being wrested from her and handed by society to the whims of powerful men.

Now I write that down it sounds like a great idea, but unfortunately the film's not the least bit about that either. What anyone does in reaction to anything else that happens is an utter mystery, everyone seems to hate everyone and everything around them, even while they're trying to seduce each other, and the whole thing is played so broadly and over the top it's laughable.

Maybe you have to know something about the play the film-within-the-film is based on – it might be related to the director's next movie Possession with Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani because he loves some article of source material. I hope so, because even if you like French movies this one might be too much for you. It's just too French.

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