IN THE VIVIDLY unsettling opening scene of Andrzej Zulawski’s The Important Thing is to Love (1975), struggling porno actress Nadine Chevalier (a heavily made-up Romy Schneider) backs away from the camera into a blood-soaked room, an oversized men’s overcoat draped loosely over her bare shoulders and mauve slip. Nadine lowers herself onto a bloodied man stretched out on the floor as a severe-looking female director demands that she profess love to this man: “You feel him, it turns you on!” the director cries. “That’s why you say, ‘I love you!’” Servais (Fabio Testi) sneaks onto the set to take some photos and starts to squeeze off some shots just as Nadine finds herself unable to say the words “I love you” with any conviction. So a camera is filming a camera, and an actress (Schneider) is playing an actress (Chevalier) who has hit the rock bottom of her own exploitation and degradation. When her gaze lands on Servais’s camera, Nadine’s face looks small and almost irredeemably soiled.
As Nadine and Servais make eye contact, Georges Delerue’s relentlessly depressive score for strings starts flooding the soundtrack, reinforcing and even creating the moment that these two make a life-altering connection. Is it possible to fall in love at first sight? When Nadine sees Servais taking photos, the presence of a second camera recording her humiliation pushes her so deeply into despair that you can almost see the crushed dreams of her youth float to the surface of her shellacked porn star face. “No photos please,” she pleads, holding her hand up in a gesture of total defenselessness. Servais sees this and empathizes with her pain; he is moved, transformed. “I’m an actress,” she pitifully continues, “I do good stuff. I only do this to…to eat. So please, no photos,” she says, very quietly.
No sooner has Servais lowered his camera than he gets into a violent fight with some of the crew members. This is a film made up almost exclusively of violent scenes, and while the physical violence can be extreme, it never approaches the extremity of the emotional violence on display. What happens between Nadine and Servais in this first scene of The Important Thing is to Love is enormously complicated, and so rich that it takes the rest of the film to sort it out. It can be seen as their falling in love, but the Delerue score hints at something more disturbing, at something like that Delerue music slowly eddying on the soundtrack around Anne Bancroft’s compulsive child-bearer in the Harold Pinter-scripted The Pumpkin Eater (1964) as she alternates between near-catatonia and hysterical breakdown, the same emotional seesaw that Schneider’s Nadine rides in this most romantic of Zulawski’s movies.
Romy Schneider in The Most Important Thing is to Love (1975)
IMPORTANT THING was Zulawski’s third film and his first French production (he would be based in France for most of his subsequent career) and in many ways it couldn’t be more different from the much harsher first two features he had directed in his native Poland. His 1971 debut The Third Part of the Night opens with surreal images of a woman being chased into her house by a man on horseback who keeps hitting her with the butt of his rifle. The main male character spends most of the film in flight from disaster when he isn’t participating in an experimental vaccine study involving the attachment of lice to his skin.
Zulawski’s second feature, The Devil (1972), follows a madman, Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski), on an increasingly bloody walking tour through the Polish countryside after the Prussian invasion of 1793. As an electric guitar wails on the soundtrack, Jakub sternly surveys many scenes of sexual excess, taking a straight razor to the throats of many a hysterical woman. He discovers his father’s dead body while a vindictive dwarf plays a kazoo nearby, and his sister confesses, “I’ve learned to take pleasure in beating,” after getting a bucketful of water flung in her face (the water wets the camera lens as well). The dwarf then throws a handful of dirt into Jakub’s face as he tries to bury his father, and this is followed by Jakub nearly sleeping with his own mother.
“That was an embarrassment of thrills,” says a man at one point in The Devil, carrying his caterwauling blond lover away from a ballroom orgy dominated by misplaced sexual urges and warped patriotism. By the end, it is suggested that The Devil himself is at the bottom of all this trouble, and this Devil is actually castrated on screen. For Zulawski, sexual self-indulgence appears to be at the root of most evil, but the authorities in Poland only saw the licentious surface and not the underlying moralizing, and so The Devil was banned and forced the director to leave his country to find work. It is the film of a conservative and very despairing man who (judging from his movies alone), has serious issues with sex, women and homosexuality.
Leszek Teleszynski in The Devil (1972)
Zulawski’s relation to gayness and femininity can be difficult to gauge and can be seen as either bold or retrograde. Most of his films feature crypto-gay male characters, yet they are almost always involved with or married to women, like Pascal Greggory’s rich giggler in Zulawski’s last film to date, La fidélité (2000). In The Devil, Jakub is unexpectedly kissed by a male friend, and Jakub taunts the friend afterward, as if he has found out a dirty secret; toward the end of the film, Jakub is nearly raped by a lascivious actor-manager who soon gets dispatched with that ever-ready straight razor. Zulawski’s latter-day muse and second wife Sophie Marceau is involved with a lovelorn lesbian employee and unhappily married to a gay man in My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days (1989), and there’s a highly erotic scene in L’amour braque (1985) where Marceau ties up the male lead, puts make-up on him so that he’ll look “ridiculous,” throws him on a bed, sucks in her phenomenally plush lower lip, then dribbles a foamy white gob of spit onto his face. This is a very charged moment, and what makes it so is the sense of the man’s wide-eyed emasculation.
During a graphic orgy set piece in The Important Thing is to Love, Servais takes photos of naked women as they touch themselves, and the scene ends with a panicked nude girl getting mauled by several men, but Zulawski also includes a shot of two boys shyly kissing each other, just a peck. Later in that film, Servais reaches a breaking point when he refuses to take photos of a “grandma dyke” who is about to violate a doped young girl with a fancy grey strap-on. The two other major male characters in that movie, Nadine’s cinephile husband Jacques (Jacques Dutronc) and showboating actor Karl-Heinz Zimmer (Klaus Kinski) both refer to themselves as gay in dialogue, but Jacques’s inability to love Nadine in a physical sense is seen as the major tragedy of the film, and Zimmer offers a passionate kiss to Nadine when she falters in a rehearsal for a play and disappears to sleep with two women after he gets a murderously bad review on opening night. Wouldn’t Kinski’s self-proclaimed “well-bred homosexual” want to drown his sorrows with two boys instead? Why does he sleep with two women, and why is he in tears after getting out of bed with them? The audio commentary with Zulawski for the boutique DVD of this film is frustratingly un-illuminating about these questions and many others the film raises.
Sophie Marceau and Francis Huster in L’amour braque (1985)
THE SPASTIC PEOPLE in Zulawski’s movies are always stomping and charging and striding into rooms while his often rather low handheld camera shakily follows them as they have their street theater-sized seizures (“Shift asses! Shake heads!” cries a hooligan in L’amour braque). These handheld shots match the emotional combustibility of his characters, and he makes grave physical demands on his players. When Isabelle Adjani came to do her infamous subway freak-out for his most notorious movie, Possession (1981), Zulawski directed her to “fuck the air,” and she certainly complied, doing what must be the most extended Jerzy Grotowski acting exercise in a mainstream movie.
I studied the Grotowski method for a year in college, and so I’m very familiar with the kind of all-out flipping and screaming Adjani is doing in this scene in Possession. This sort of thing doesn’t do much for me in the theater, and it’s even less interesting on film, but it’s the kind of scene and the kind of movie that will either fascinate or repel you. Schneider in The Important Thing is to Love quite clearly isn’t acting or demonstrating her character’s despair but inhabiting it herself, in some very unusual emotional registers all relating to Nadine’s deep tiredness. When Nadine strikes out at Servais physically, Schneider isn’t kidding: she really pummels him (Testi and Schneider hated each other on set, according to Zulawski, and luckily their hatred comes across as steadily boiling sexual tension and chemistry).
Zulawski violates just about every mandate of what might be termed a “well-made drama,” ignoring plot, structure and sometimes even character just to more freely survey the chaos he keeps whipping up. Brief moments of intellectual or even spiritual insight streak across the landscapes of his films like heat lightning. His despair is genuine, and it seems to have a religious basis. “You got religion?” asks one punk of another in L’amour braque, and the other punk cries, “No!” but it’s obvious he wants some.
Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981)
Post-Possession, Zulawski built four vehicles around Marceau, and she’s gorgeous but lightweight in those films as she freaks out for him again and again. Marceau just lacks the killer gravitas of Schneider and Adjani, but Zulawski films her with love that gradually deepens from film to film, proof that you can’t really fall in love with a person at first sight but usually on second or third sight, and the third time is usually the charm. Conversely, you can fall in love with a film at first sight and then gradually fall a little out of love with it, and that’s where I am right now with The Important Thing is to Love, which made a tremendous impression on me when I was first caught up in its madness but has steadily diminished the more I’ve watched it and thought about its vague reaching for more genuine emotion.
Dutronc’s Jacques in The Important Thing is to Love collects movie memorabilia, and he has a poster of Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) up on his wall. That Kazan movie was thought excessive in its time, and it still seems so when Richard Davalos crashes his head through a train window, or when James Dean smashes Davalos’s head onto the lap of their hooker mother (Jo Van Fleet). Kazan took himself to task in his autobiography for favoring too many climaxes in his work, but Zulawski goes much further than Kazan ever did. In so many of Zulawski’s films, every scene is like Davalos crashing his pretty head through that train window in East of Eden, so that finally no behavior seems too outrageous to not eventually foster a perverse sense of calm.
Zulawski makes the kind of extreme films that most audience members might walk out on after ten minutes, and they’re not necessarily wrong to do so. His is a romantic sensibility obsessed with the idea of unlicensed sexual opportunity and deeply disgusted by it. For anybody who has ever felt all fucked out, or for anyone who had religion as a child but felt it fall away early, the often-ludicrous emotional upheavals forever churning away in Zulawski’s movies might seem like a rational response to life, and you might develop a taste for his films and keep it, or you might acquire it and discard it, but the important thing is to experience it for yourself.
Dan Callahan is an Editor for Alt Screen.
“Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski” is playing at BAMCinématek, March 7th to 20th.