The movie opens with a strange, violent and stylized bar brawl. We find out in short order that this is actually a scene being imagined and played out by actors at a rehearsal, centering on the novice actress/model Ethel (attractive Valérie Kaprisky), who is “the public woman” of the title.
The movie is based on the autobiography of a minor French actress, chronicling her (fictional?) journey from obscurity to stardom, and director Andrzej Zulawski has taken the opportunity to also turn this movie into a movie about movie-making.
The movie inside the movie, that they are rehearsing for, is an adaptation of Dostoyevski’s “The Possessed”, and the director inside the movie is an over-the-top theatrical and frantically self-promoting type who pushes the actors to the edge of nervous breakdown in order to make them find the strength and character to act their parts in the properly dramatic manner. It reads, one has to comment, like Zulawski’s own slightly exaggerated fantasy of what perfect movie-making should be like, and how actors ought to be treated in order to bring out their truest performances. The result, while disturbing, is also iconic and shockingly impressive.
We follow Ethel’s journey from a nude model and dancer to an actress who ends up turning in such a haunting performance in the movie inside the movie that she becomes an instant star upon the movie’s release. Much the same thing happened with Valérie Kaprisky in the real world when La femme publique came out. It was a great commercial success, which Zulawski (who was present at this screening) attributes to the nudity, commenting enigmatically that financial success is not a very good thing for a movie.
We also follow Ethel’s sexual exploits, which are intimately connected to her career. She gets together with the movie director, and also with another main character, Milan (Lambert Wilson of Matrix fame). There is a political subplot running through the movie, concerning a Lithuanian cardinal who is getting so popular that the Soviet authorities sees him as a rebellious threat to their regime. So they manipulate Milan, a Czech national who has been reporting dissidents to the communist authorities there, into being a “lone nut” assassin who can kill the cardinal and subsequently be gotten rid of. Zulawski reveals that he intended this to be analogous to his own situation as an increasingly popular director in Poland in the 1970s, whom the authorities wanted to get rid of (as indeed they did, exiling him to France with five dollars in his pocket, telling him that his wife and child could follow him after six months if he behaved himself).
While the movie does make a number of points about what happens to a woman in show business, my impression of the movie was that the whole “public woman” theme is actually the least explored of multiple other themes in the movie. The movie is mainly about the difference between cinema and reality, meaningfully underscoring its point by being excessively melodramatic in its movie-within-the-movie bits (incl. the opening sequence). It is also about the director’s own ideas about both movie-making and politics. It is, ultimately, a beautifully filmed movie which is rife with both visual and intellectual elements to contemplate, comprising a grand statement about the nature of art.
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Cast: Valérie Kapriski,
Runtime: 113 min.