No other filmmaker fuses hysteria and contemplation like Andrzej Zulawski. The director is most often represented by his 1981 film “Possession,” an emotionally fraught breakup movie in which a tentacled monster is part of a love triangle. That film has recently enjoyed a critical upswing after years as a cult favorite. He made only twelve features between 1971 and 2000, but those movies are remarkably consistent explorations of a core set of ideas about love, honestly and responsibility, the interrelated nature of personal and political lives, and the many transcendent and often terrifying ways in which emotions burst through any barrier as lives collide.
Just hours after the announcement that “Cosmos,” his thirteenth feature and his first in fifteen years, had secured U.S. distribution, Andrzej Zulawski died due to a battle with cancer. He was 75. What was briefly a reason to celebrate the director’s return to the screen is now a chance to look back at an uncompromising and adventurous career. Zulawski once said, “I don’t make a concession to viewers, these victims of life, who think that a film is made only for their enjoyment, and who know nothing about their own existence.” Unlike many artists who proclaim their iconoclasm, Zulawski’s films demonstrate not just a willingness but a fierce, even perverse determination to stay his own personal course.
His explore the nature of subjugation and submission, the relationship between cruelty and love, and the explosive schisms between desire and morality. Characters caught up in Zulawski’s machinations often succumb to paroxysms of movement and screaming, as if the emotions driving them are too overwhelming for a physical body to contain. Asked to explain a difficult question, a slightly Satanic character in Zulawski’s second film, “The Devil,” proclaims that he can only describe it through dance before launching into a smiling whirl of flailing limbs and flapping cloak. The main character played by Isabelle Adjani in “Possession” is so consumed by her passions that she flails and contorts in ways that seem nearly inhuman. She’s the primal scream personified.
With such a contained cinematic career (Zulawski was also an accomplished novelist) one could say that nearly every film he made is essential. We’ve chosen to highlight five in particular.
“The Third Part of the Night” (1971)
Rarely does a debut film represent the arrival of an artist with sensibilities so fully formed. In Zulawski’s first feature, set during World War II, a Polish man, Michal (Leszek Teleszyński), sees his wife, mother, and son killed by occupying Germans. He joins the resistance and soon finds himself caring for a woman (Malgorzata Braunek) who looks exactly like his wife just as the woman is about to give birth. Michel’s story is bookended by recitations from the Book of Revelation; in between, he wrestles with his relationship to his father, his place in occupied Polish society, and his duties images of family. This is no typical war movie, but rather a dreamscape of anxieties and memories, where past experience is likely to be recalled through the sort of dimly-suggested narrative ellipses found nested in Thomas Pynchon‘s “Gravity’s Rainbow.” What appears to be the strangest part of the film — Michal earns a living by strapping boxes of lice to his legs so the bugs may feed on his blood — is actually its most realistic. Lice were key to the first major typhus vaccine, developed by a Polish doctor bankrolled by the Reich in a facility that became a haven for repressed intellectuals. Language about Michel’s human family tends to blur together with reference to the lice he feeds and eventually dissects, adding to the frequently hazy delineation between reality and imagination. Death comes quickly and unexpectedly as the Gestapo patrols the city, and viewers get to ponder the weight and “reality” of each final moment just as Michael does.
“The Devil” (1972)
The director’s second film was his first to be banned in Poland, an experience that led him to France for some future endeavors. “The Devil” wraps an allegory for Poland’s 1968 political crisis in the story of Prussian invasion of Poland during the 1790s, but officials saw right through any attempt to bury the lede. Indeed, “The Devil” must be the director’s most overt political statement. Yet Zulawski, not being content to explore just one idea, also layers in his concerns about family, love, and responsibility. The film opens as dissident Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski) is freed from prison by a mysterious figure (Wiktor Sadecki) who guides Jakub on a tour to visit the now-dissolute remnants of his family. Jakub’s former fiancé has given him up for a rich political shapeshifter, and that’s only the first in a string of increasingly devastating encounters with his mother, father, and sister, all engineered by the strange man who, like a perverted Virgil to Jakub’s Dante, guides him through a personal hell. Soon, young Jakub begins to snap and great violence ensues. The director’s roving camera and his pattern of setting the most abstract concepts in very practical locations, both factors in his debut, are put to great use as Zulawski roves the countryside with the strange duo and their captive nun.
“On the Silver Globe” (1977/1988)
A group of astronauts crashes on an Earth-like planet. Years pass and their descendants have populated a new non-technological society, complete with a semi-religious worship of the last surviving astronaut and a prophecy about another man to arrive from Earth. Another astronaut does arrive, centuries later, and is drawn into a complex conflict between two societies. Had “On the Silver Globe” been completed as planned, this meditative science fiction puzzle might have become Zulawski’s first landmark effort. But the 1977 shoot was scuttled by a newly-appointed official who ordered the materials destroyed after interpreting the film’s cultural battle as a battle between Polish citizens and government. Cast and crew preserved the film, however, and the movie, as complete as possible, premiered at Cannes in 1988 with Zulawski narrating the un-shot scenes. In its final form, “On the Silver Globe” is trying, thanks not only to its incomplete nature but to Zulawski’s oblique screenplay full of elliptical monologues. (The script is based on a novel by Zulawski’s great-uncle.) The thematic scope, which factors in political allegory and Zulawski’s fascination with doppelgängers, religion, and morality, would be challenging even if the film were complete. Its rewards are significant, however. Most of the first hour is found-footage (hardly a common conceit in 1977, or even 1988) and that daring stylistic experiment, combined with imagery that anticipates films such as “Dune,” makes the film more a vision than an antique. Even at its most unfathomable, “On the Silver Globe” features spectacular imagination and vivid, mesmerizing imagery. A bizarre and unforgettable crucifixion sequence is one of the film’s many sights that should draw it out of obscurity.
No single film represents Zulawski’s passions, technique and excesses better than “Possession.” This is his “Blue Velvet,” his “The Holy Mountain.” Shot through with strains of horror, science fiction and political thrillers, “Possession” is most meaningfully the story of the last vestiges of a dying relationship between Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and her spy husband Mark (Sam Neill). When Mark returns home from some mysterious espionage, Anna asks for a divorce, and their young son Bob (Michael Hogben) is caught in the middle. There’s a doppleganger (Adjani, playing Bob’s angelic garbed-in-white teacher), a free-spirit lover (Heinz Bennent, embracing his director’s ideas about unusual character movement), and, yeah, the monster, a particularly sexual beast created with the help of master Carlo Rambaldi and eventually echoed in David Cronenberg‘s “Naked Lunch.” Wide lenses in practical locations give “Possession” an uneasy sense of space. Despite ample room in the frame, Zulawski constantly pushes his actors together to enhance the push and pull of dependency and revulsion that acts on these people like dual magnetic polarities. The emotional horror of the breakup is complicated by deep religious imagery and a strain of political awareness that becomes more prominent as the film evolves into its final act. Throughout, Adjani is never less than wildly committed to both roles, and Neill lurches and howls through a performance that reduces what initially seems to be a capable man nearly to childhood. “Possession” is extreme in its displays of emotion, unbearably raw at times, and quite extraordinary.
“L’Amour Braque” (1985)
Pure, excessive, dizzying anarchy. A group of men, masked as Disney characters, rob a bank in an opening sequence that Christopher Nolan must have seen before making “The Dark Knight.” While en route to back to Marie (Sophie Marceau), the beauty adored by criminal Mickey (Francis Huster), the crew befriends befuddled Léon (Tchéky Karyo). That’s probably a mistake, as Léon and Marie hit it off in ways Mickey isn’t prepared to handle. With characters constantly in motion, often capering like sugar-high children while committing violently anti-social acts, “L’Amour Braque” is both a distillation and a parody of gangster movies. Imagine Zulawski making a Warner Bros. cartoon — one which turns horrifyingly dark. Scripted by Etienne Roda-Gil as a loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” the film’s dialogue zig-zags through free-associated jokes and references, poetic observations, actual bits of plot, and eccentric notes of desire and retribution. It can seem like nonsense in the first go, and, yes, some of it is simply ridiculous. Zulawski’s mise-en-scène is so frenetic, the images captured by cinematographer Jean-François Robin so colorful and intense in their embrace of mid-’80s style, that the film plays well even without subtitles. (The director’s camera frequently follows and circles his characters. Here, it sometimes appears to struggle to keep up.) Yet the most effective moments are between Marceau and Karyo; when the film slows just a bit to give them some room, the patience required to delve through all the film’s peculiarities and violence pays off.