Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Andrzej Zulawski's Diabel (The Devil) is a messy, baroque, jagged film, all sloppily chopped up and ragged, dripping in blood and grime. It is unrepentantly, unceasingly ugly and vile, wallowing in the filth and degradation of a world in which morality and ideals mean little, and in which everyone seems either half-mad or already fallen into the abyss of insanity. The film opens with its chaos already in progress, at a convent that is being stormed by soldiers. Everywhere, women are screaming, fires rage, gunshots ring out, and the whole place seems more like a mental asylum than a home for nuns. Zulawski is thrusting the audience into the middle of things, signaling that this will be a film of madness and horror, and this bracing introduction is stunning and effective, even if eventually the unrelenting hysterics and shrill pitch of the film will become more tiring and numbing than harrowing. Into this chaos wanders a mysterious man in a long black cloak (Wojciech Pszoniak), who kidnaps a nun (Monika Niemczyk) and breaks a political prisoner named Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski) out of a holding cell in the convent. Jakub had been arrested as a conspirator in a plot against the monarchy of Poland, a leader in an apparently failed revolution, but now the mysterious stranger urges him away from the convent, back towards his home, accompanied by the nun.

When Jakub arrives home, however, he finds only madness and devastation. His sister is insane and is apparently betrothed to their half-brother Ezechiel (Michal Grudzinski). His father is dead, having committed suicide in disgrace and insanity; Jakub is told that in the old man's final months, he'd mistaken his daughter for his wife and raped her many times. Jakub also finds that his mother (Iga Mayr), who'd long ago abandoned her family, was living nearby as the madam of a brothel. The final injustice is the realization that Jakub's fiancée (Malgorzata Braunek), believing him to be dead after his arrest, had married his former best friend, one of his fellow conspirators in the revolution. Everyone in the film seems to be mad or half-mad, possessed by horrible spirits. The film is shrill and loud, with a hectoring, hysterical tone. The performances are pitched in only one key: everyone is constantly screaming and crying, tearing at their clothes, falling to the floor and thrashing around, shivering and shaking, laughing like lunatics. It's as though the whole world was an insane asylum — or as though Zulawski had assembled a cast of epileptics to act through seizures and convulsions. What's compelling for fifteen or twenty minutes quickly becomes exhausting; everyone Jakub meets acts in the same dazed, distant manner, then falls to the floor and thrashes around while screaming.

Although it's obvious that Zulawski is trying to create a portrait of a world gone mad, seen through the eyes of a man who finds only degradation and horror everywhere he goes, the uniformity of the film's tone and the repetitiveness of its incidents quickly become boring. Zulawski can only eke so much shock value out of his bloody, horrible scenarios, as the stranger leads Jakub on a guided tour of the wasteland that has become his life. The man urges Jakub to wallow in this devastation, and to react to it with murder, using a razor provided by the man at key moments. It is obvious, from the film's title, that the stranger is a metaphorical devil perched on Jakub's shoulder, always showing up whenever Jakub needs a little push to commit the next atrocity, always providing another little nudge towards evil and sin. The stranger wears Jakub down until he is totally weak and defeated, unable to resist any act — and it is only then, in one of the film's cleverest conceits, that the stranger reveals the very base, very human motivations behind all this horror and ugliness.

This very human devil is, in fact, the most interesting aspect of the film. He is a sniveling, cowardly figure, not at all intimidating or frightening. He is jittery and nervous, like the low-level clerk he's referred to as at one point. He is a servant rather than a leader, an anxious fly buzzing obsessively around Jakub's head, whispering in his ear, planting seeds of ideas and letting them sprout into actions. Zulawski cleverly does not give this "devil" too much power, does not make him imposing. He is a base, pathetic creature, a parasite who feeds on the weaknesses of others — and he finds plenty of weakness to satiate him. Towards the end of the film, the aimless Jakub asks if the world is really so ugly as he believes it to be, or if it's actually beautiful. The stranger praises the world's beauty in ineffectual terms, then purports to demonstrate its beauty through dance — but his dance is as spastic and chaotic as everything else in the film, a lame testament for the world's beauty from an ugly, pathetic man. The film puts little stock into art in general: Jakub comes across a troupe of performers and actors, but they are predatory and aggressive, with the troupe's gay leader trying to rape Jakub. The troupe's performance of scenes from Hamlet only mirrors back to Jakub the themes of betrayal and familial dysfunction that he finds everywhere he turns in his own life. Later, he says he finds comfort in the arms of the woman who plays Hamlet's mother in the play, but this is a short-lived pleasure that ends in more violence, and in any event it can only be linked to Jakub's own incestuous "punishment" of his own mother.

There is, doubtless, an allegory hidden within this film somewhere, if one could dig through its layers of blood and dirt. It is a film about the corruption of humanity, about how an idealistic young man who wishes to fight for his dreams is instead twisted into an instrument of violence and terror, serving interests contrary to his stated ideals. Zulawski apparently intended the film as a response to a very specific incident involving student riots in Communist Poland, but it can just as easily be taken as a general statement on the destruction of ideals through temptation and exploitation.

That is, if one can get past the film's exhausting hysterics. Zulawski conveys the disconnection and dazed state of Jakub effectively through his fragmentary editing, through which the young man often seems to be leaping spasmodically from location to location: one moment he might be in a springtime forest, the next passed out on a snowy hill. This disjunctive editing is effective at adding to the film's destabilizing feeling, and also lends a supernatural aura to the film's "devil," who often seems to appear out of nowhere, always in the right place. The editing winds up being one of the film's most compelling elements, however. Diabel as a whole is simply too shrill, too repetitive, too silly in its theatrical overacting and constant fits of contrived "madness." It opens in insanity and maintains the same fevered pitch throughout, which over time dulls whatever effect Zulawski was going for. Diabel is sporadically interesting, often visually provocative, but ultimately inconsequential.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if you had found the film's consistently nightmarish aesthetic enthralling rather than tiresome whether you would have been more or less willing to dismiss it. I found the excessively stilted characters of Uncle Boonmee to be tiresome, myself, but I guess that's just difference tolerance levels for different styles. Where I found that film to be portrayed all in one key and Diabel to be an exercise in a wide array of tones (all on a high register, to be sure, in keeping with the nightmarish aesthetic).

A note on the aesthetic: having not seen his two short films, I recently heard comments about the making of his first feature film about his father's circumstances during the war which involved being fed on by typhus infected lice in order to produce vaccines, something which apparently made his father more ill than the starvation was already making him, and thus he created an aesthetic to match the feverish state of his father's state of mind at the time. This is carried into Diabel, and for good reason I would say. His first film is similarly disorienting and disconcerting, and appropriately so.

While working on this high register, where those pieces that may not fit in the register are conveniently rid of by way of ellipsis, there is a way in which Zulawski uses his distorted nightmare logic to create emphasis in small details. The characters are almost constantly convulsing, it is true, but there are moments of tranquility, as when the brother comforts his sister, which elevates the calm by contrast. There is an element that works, for most of the film, entirely in tranquil inaction, though, and that is the character of Jakub's accompanying nun. She is entirely ineffectual, being led around with fear in her eyes but no flight in her legs. In one scene, after an ellipses of unknown length, the camera pans across Jakub's burnt out room to find her sitting there, drenched and shivering in the freezing elements. This makes sense only in the nightmare of the film, of course, but I remember it as a striking image amongst a film which, as you say, aims to strike at every moment. She comes into play in another major moment later in the film which sets up the end, as well, when she finally sheds her submissiveness and her hood in one unified gesture, a moment set up by her presence as the one stationary element of the film to this point which makes any of her movements stand out by contrast. The nightmare aesthetic is a given, and I think the consistency of its presence is a boon rather than a burden, for it allows the contrasts between the expected insanity and the unexpected calms to be referenced purely within the story, whereas many other films would slap an aesthetic affectation onto an otherwise generic aesthetic which ruins the consistency and draws the viewer out of the established mood.

You're not going to ever have to be subjected to an aesthetic as rigorous and ridiculous as this ever again, and I think that this uniqueness is something to savor rather than suffer, especially because of the subtlety of execution found within the undeniably extreme aesthetic.

Maybe on second viewing you will be able to accept the aesthetic as preferred and then be able to enjoy rather than endure, who knows. I haven't been able to enjoy Zulawski's overbearing L'amour braque, but several of his films with varying degrees of aesthetic overload are among my absolute favorites.

Ed Howard said...

Those are some interesting thoughts, LEAVES, and a very cogent defense of this film. I guess my main problem with the film was that I just didn't find enough depth or substance in it to be able to tolerate or even appreciate its consistent aesthetic. Had I thought the film really had something substantial to it, I probably would've enjoyed that bleak aesthetic much more. As it is, I found it simply exhausting and ultimately boring. I didn't see the subtlety within the extremity that you did, and I couldn't buy any of the characters because for the most part all of them acted exactly the same. (You're right, the nun is an exception, but she's simply passive until, abruptly, she isn't anymore. She's different from the other characters but I'm not convinced it's a productive or meaningful difference. All the women in the film are passive or crazy, or often both, and all of them are traitors or whores.)

Anyway, I'm certainly willing to give Zulawski another shot, but I'm in no rush to revisit this particular one. Possession is very highly regarded, of course, so I'll be checking that out eventually.

Anonymous said...

That wasn't even a defense! That was like me singing Bowie in Portuguese...

You say the film isn't substantial - I wouldn't be surprised if your distaste simply made you disinterested in finding that substance. I know that happens to me. Even as one of my favorite films I still find it esoteric, beguiling, and incredibly complex, and I think you could find it if you were interested, but I would never be able to if I wasn't. I find the aesthetic alone to be substantial, even if it was simply a stream of nightmarish consciousness without any underlying structure. But, then, it for me is like a brier patch, and for you it is like - a brier patch. With that in mind, I would absolutely suggest that you avoid Possession. It is a brier patch. Zulawski's only English language film tends to the most popular with English speaking people, it's true, but it being his only true horror film (and one of the few horror films I enjoy at all) gives it a double dose of asymmetrical popularity that isn't really representative of its relative quality. The French prefer L'important c'est d'aimer, I hear, which is not very hysterical at all and features what people often say is Romy Schneider's best performance. My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days is hilarious and amazing and features Marceau at her funniest and most ravishing. I always recommend those first, a way to wade into Zulawski's uncompromising brilliance. La femme publique is great, as well, and is shot by none other than Sacha Vierny. If you choose Possession - don't be surprised with what you get. Briers!

On another note, I noticed that you tagged this film with 'horror', yet I don't feel that it applies at all. I would group it with films like The Cremator in the black comedy/polemic range. Horror fans tend to hate both, and I think they're both deliriously great.

mark s. said...

I watched this emetic atrocity over the weekend (minus subtitles, so the film made no sense) and very nearly vomited. I totally concur with you here; 'Diabel' is the movie equivalent of a 'swirly' in a toiletful of shit and puke (also, though I know the killing is fictional, did the horse need to have its throat slit, too?). Way over the top.

I think the guys over at Wonders get tired of my kvetching, and since I don't want to offend anyone with another adverse opinion...
By the way I've watched 'Le Petit Soldat' three times now and think it's great, possibly because the film really isn't Karina's story, but the young deserter's.
And how many times does Godard murder her in a film, I've forgotten?

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, it's definitely too much, Mark. I didn't get much out of it all beyond wallowing in all the ugliness.

Glad you like Petit soldat so much, it's an interesting movie - and especially fascinating to me for its intertextual connections to Claire Denis' great Beau travail, which picks up Bruno's story many years later.

Anonymous said...

This film is going to be shown in London soon so I was looking it up to see if it worth seeing. Doesn't sound like my "cup of tea" - I can only take so much wallowing and women as traitors or whores, but some great reviews/debates - cheers...