After two decades of disconcerting French moviegoers with his erotic nihilism, helmer Andrzej Zulawski returns to his native Poland for “Chamanka,” a story of lowlife academia and thundering sex in troubled contemporary Warsaw. The Polish-language pic may please rebellious youth at home and the voyeur crowd abroad, but few others will sit through this overlong study of straining faces, quivering limbs and random violence, whose larger message somehow gets lost as the number of sex scenes reaches double digits. Look for the technically proficient “Chamanka” in alternative vid bins, and on latenight highbrow Euro cable.
Zulawski’s knack for putting pretty young actresses through the erotic wringer seems undiminished since his serial disrobing of Valerie Kaprisky and Sophie Marceau in the mid-’80s. Here it is newcomer Iwona Petry, a sort of Liv Tyler on amphetamines, who spends most of the pic in various stages of undressed distress and ecstasy. Her partner, popular local thesp Boguslaw Linda, manfully keeps the proceedings moving along and, through sheer screen presence, delivers a perf that makes the story seem almost believable.
Brilliant anthropologist Michel (Linda) discovers the mummified body of a prehistoric shaman at the same time as he embarks on a wildly erratic liaison with the so-called “Italian” (Petry), a fetching engineering student rendered almost autistic by her ravenous sexual needs. Their violent affair grows ever more strange as Michel, now popping uppers in an attempt to reach a shaman-like state, comes to confuse flesh and soul in a spiral of erratic erotic behavior.
The student, who spends much of her time working at a steel mill among leering fellow engineers, then moonlighting at an abattoir where she eats the gelatinous offal that comes spurting out of an industrial meat grinder, is, to say the least, disturbed. We know things will end badly when one of Michel’s assistants, all of whom are post-communist wheeler-dealers, arrives with smuggled Ukrainian uranium and the Mafia in hot pursuit.
Scripted by Manuela Gretkowska, a cult novelist and sometime journalist with Poland’s edition of Elle magazine, “Chamanka” takes numerous swipes at everyday male lechery, knee-jerk Polish Catholicism and the continuing misery of the country’s fledgling capitalist society. Unfortunately, these critiques get buried in the bed linen.
Aside from quirky (and uncredited) editing as the story spins out of control to its gory conclusion, tech credits are adequate. Lenser Andrzej Jaroszewicz’s impressive, if excessive, use of Steadicam lets us run after the characters as they skip, stumble and get beaten through the streets and back alleys of Warsaw. Andrzej Korzynski’s throbbing soundtrack serves as a none-too-subtle counterpoint to what’s happening onscreen. But ultimately, “Chamanka” and Zulawski fail to work any magic.