Friday, May 14, 2021

Cannes 1984: Valérie Kaprisky, Eulogy of the Nude

Two texts on Zulawki's The Public Woman published on the same day in Libération: one by Daney on Valérie Kaprisky and a "unanimous review" by all the films critics. 

Valérie Kaprisky, Eulogy of the Nude

Things happen too fast in The Public Woman for us to have the time to think anything of the actors’ performance. Bodies are in such a state of acceleration that we cannot perceive in them anything other than condensed energy ready to be unleashed in each shot, to tip over in an atmosphere, to flee in wide angle and to knock props off. Zulawski is too full of his own torment to share anything other than hysteria and nervous breakdowns with his actors. 

Yet, of the three characters in The Public Woman, the only one that – strictly speaking – keeps up, is the woman, Valérie Kaprisky. And among the countless images where she is pushed to the limit and left to her own reflexes, the only ones that stay afloat are the ones where she has the time to be visible. Visible and naked because she is dancing for a few banknotes from a photographer-voyeur who snaps away looking mean in an equally naked setting. Visible and naked because in these moments, she exists despite Zulawski’s pyrotechnics, playing the role of the object in the most naked expression of the relation between actor and auteur, when the object is reduced to a bulging eye on one side and a wriggling body on the other. Valérie Kaprisky conveys something rare in cinema: the nude. Not “in the buff” for a bit of starry flesh, but the nude, in the sense that a painter might see his model come alive, charge toward him, and risk performing threatening movements. An unchained Matisse, a feminine Bacon, with heavy ankles bound to the floor, a head that says no, a back scarily arched. It’s beautiful.

A person capable of inventing such movements isn’t an ordinary one. That’s the word on the Croisette. Cinephiles know Kaprisky because they saw her as Jean Seberg’s remake in Jim McBride’s sweet film (Breathless). They are mostly unaware that she also appeared in films such as Men Prefer Fat Girls (1981), Une glace avec deux boules (1982), Aphrodite (1982) and Légitime violence (1982). They are unaware that she was born Valérie Chères, in Neuilly in 1962, and that she almost played in One Deadly Summer (1983). But they weren’t completely wrong. Valérie Karpisky is among those actresses that arrive at a point where they need to both create an image and stick to it (in commercial films), and not refuse the role of a guinea pig in an art film experiment that may crush them, harden them and perhaps get them noticed. With The Public Women, Valérie Kaprisky seems to have managed this successfully. 

Of course, when listening to what she says about her work with Zulawski, one must make allowances for the obligatory discourse inherent to this kind of project. “I believe that I’ve really pushed my limits. I gave everything in the first days for the dance scenes, and by the end of the first week, I decided to give even more.” To which there is nothing to say except that this conception of the work of an actor as a gift and a therapy suddenly comes across as dated (like the film, by the way). As for her relationship with Zulawski: “He was often affectionate and fragile, and we were capable of not giving him anything, in self-defence. What interests him is to work with actors who have an inner richness but who are also manipulatable, whom he can fashion in different ways.” That, we certainly got.  

First published in Libération, 14 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Our unanimous review

Everyone is free to think what they want of the media bluff that sucked up to the trumpeting presentation of The Public Woman. They can even salute, without irony, the marketing performance. If all this noise had been at the service of a masterpiece, we could have possibly even been cordially pleased or complicit in it. But The Public Woman is wide of the mark, to say the least, and the bluff of the film vastly overshadows the bluff of its promotion.

Zulawski enjoys a certain reputation: the man who loves women, who makes them suffer and derives films from it (remember the ultrasonic Adjani in Possession). Here once again, he relies on a woman (Valérie Kaprisky, rather deserving) to tell his story: a modern young girl who hesitates between being a whore, a child-woman, and the main character in a remake of Demons directed by a mad Franco-German director (Francis Huster). What else? Nothing, for all this is a necessary but not at all sufficient smokescreen at the service of some pretty over-the-top ideas about cinema. For there are messages here, and what messages they are! That the creator gives birth to his art through suffering, that auteur cinema is hell, that to film actors is to grant them immortality. In short, the whole “Shush, I’m creating!” shebang that no one wants anymore after Fellini’s 8 ½.

What’s left? A certain virtuosity in making the camera and images run around, but at the service of the discourse just explained above, therefore empty and neutralised. Valérie Kaprisky is kind enough to tolerate what Zulawski makes her go through but often acts a little forced; Huster is hysterical as a fake blond, Lambert Wilson rather convincing as a drinker of dirty water; Jean-Paul Farré remains in completely nutty nirvana. What a disappointment!

Signed: all of us.

Published in Libération, 14 May 1984. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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