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The mad Polish movie maestro Andrzej Zulawski, who died last year, at age 75, may never have won any major international cinema prizes during his lifetime — no Palmes d’Or, no Golden Lions, no Silver Bears, etc. But he was awarded an even greater, rarer honor: French film critics saluted him by coining an adjective, Zulawskien, a synonym for “over the top.” Intemperate, garish, outrageous, and unmissable, Zulawski’s 1975 freak-out, L’important c’est d’aimer (“The Important Thing Is to Love,” per the opening credits of the Rialto release, a slightly tamer rendering of another English translation previously used, “That Most Important Thing: Love”), receives its first theatrical run in the U.S. at the Quad, where it opens on Friday.
Born in 1940, this auteur of audacity began his career in the early 1960s as an assistant director to Andrzej Wajda, among Poland’s most renowned filmmakers, before helming his debut feature, The Third Part of the Night (1971), a gruesome saga of his nation’s Nazi occupation, partly based on the wartime experiences of his father (who co-scripted). Zulawski’s follow-up, The Devil (1972), set in the late eighteenth century, was even more blood-soaked — and banned. “Invited” by his home country to leave, Zulawski settled in France. (He had studied film in Paris in the Fifties; Dad served as Poland’s representative at UNESCO, based in the French capital.)
L’important c’est d’aimer — which Zulawski adapted from the novel La Nuit Américaine by Christopher Frank, who shared screenwriting duties with the director — was the Pole’s first movie in his adoptive country. (He returned to filmmaking in Poland in the mid-1990s.) In many ways L’important c’est d’aimer, the histrionic title signaling the ungovernable passions to follow, anticipates its more unhinged successor, Possession (1981), Zulawski’s best-known movie and the only of his thirteen features to open in the States while he was alive. The later film, an unclassifiable, delirious dirge reportedly inspired by the breakup of Zulawski’s first marriage, tracks spouses played by Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani as they destroy themselves through binges of jealousy (one of Adjani’s lovers is a viscous, tentacled creature with an unslakable sexual appetite), rage, and despair. Those feelings also dominate L’important, its emotional entropy at once electrifying and eviscerating.
And, like Possession — in which a supremely distraught Adjani’s first words, more sobbed than spoken, are “I don’t know!” — L’important begins with its female lead in acute anguish. The Austro-French superstar Romy Schneider plays Nadine Chevalier, an actress who, as L’important opens, is trying to maintain some shred of dignity while shooting a quasi-necrophilic scene in a Gallic-grindhouse production. “Feel him!” the director (a flame-haired woman) of this atrocity shouts at Nadine, clad in a silky chemise and straddling her supine, gore-smeared scene partner. She looks up to see a paparazzo, Servais Mont (Fabio Testi), aiming his camera at her. “No photos, please,” she implores as one tear, then another, rolls down her extravagantly maquillaged face, during the first of many times we see Schneider in extreme close-up. “I’m an actress — I do good stuff. I only do this…to eat,” she continues before Servais is kicked off the set and roughed up by the crew.
With Zulawski’s camera hyperactively following, the long, lean lensman barrels off to his next gig, shooting a bizarre homo blue movie, a typical X-rated assignment he takes on to pay off his debt to a Mob kingpin. (In physical build and his character’s sartorial choices, Testi bears an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Perkins’s sociopathic fashion photographer in Mahogany, released the same year.) Servais can’t shake that initial encounter with Nadine, though, and visits her in the crumbling mansion — a loan from “a crazy old Austrian” fan — she shares with her husband, Jacques (Jacques Dutronc, a French pop-music star in the Sixties here in the nascence of his film career), a chump cinephile too attached to his glossies of Miriam Hopkins and his old copies of Silver Screen.
Besotted, Servais secures, without her knowing, a putatively prestigious role for Nadine: Lady Anne in an avant-garde staging of Richard III, co-starring a deranged German actor named Karl-Heinz (played by deranged German actor Klaus Kinski) eager to work with the woman who so impressed him in the Italian porno Nymphocula. (The plot as recalled by the crazy Teuton: “Twelve dykes in a castle with a dwarf.”)
This radical reimagining of the Bard fails spectacularly; so too do Nadine’s marriage and, quite often, the skin-flick thespian’s coping skills. It was impossible for me to watch Zulawski’s movie and not think about Schneider’s prior films — particularly Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s astringent 1967 documentary, Romy: Anatomy of a Face, in which the star, 27 at the time, wails, “But I can’t make my [stage] debut with Shakespeare — that would be madness!” — and the personal misery that would engulf her shortly after Zulawski’s movie. (She died, at age 43, in 1982.) But Schneider in L’important is no victim: Nadine, like most of the director’s work, and especially his heroines, is feral and unyielding. These women are too much — which is to say, just right.
L’important c’est d’aimer
Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
Opens July 14, Quad Cinema