While literary inspiration played a prominent role in the early career of Polish director Andrzej Zuławski — resulting in outright adaptations in the case of his first two short television films, Pavoncello (1969) and The Story of Triumphant Love (1969), as well asL’important c’est d’aimer (1975) and his rudely interrupted production of On the Silver Globe (1988) — possibly his most ambitious attempt came at the midpoint of his career with La femme publique (1984). Co-scripted by French writer Dominique Garnier, the film is an adaptation both of Garnier’s memoirs of her early years in Paris, and of Dostoyevsky’s chaotic, reactionary opus from 1872, Бесы (Bésy) aka Demons. (Though it is often translated as The Possessed, I’ve decided to go with the more literal title, partly because “possessed” is misleadingly passive in the context of the novel’s plot.) This might seem like a fundamental contradiction — as Garnier’s memoirs focus on themes of femininity, sexuality, and art, while Dostoyevsky’s novel is a hysterical meditation on political violence — but it’s a contradiction that is not only key to understanding the film but lies at the heart of much of the director’s output in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
follows Ethel (Valérie Kaprisky), a model and actress auditioning for a part in an upcoming filmic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Despite her inexperience, she is hired by the charismatic yet abusive young director, Lucas Kesling (Francis Huster), a Czech émigré working in Paris. They begin a complicated sexual relationship as the production gets underway, and the stress of both causes Ethel to slowly lose touch with reality. She also finds herself drawn to Milan (Lambert Wilson), another Czech émigré who mistakes her for his missing wife, Elena (Diane Delors), a role Ethel willingly accepts. But she comes to believe that Elena may have been murdered and it seems Milan has been drawn into a plot of political violence.