When a great artist dies, among the (sincere) bromides offered in tribute is "He/she will be missed." With the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski, that idea doesn't automatically apply, only because the films he made were so relentlessly singular and extreme and unlike anything else that it's still difficult to actually believe they exist. So never mind missing him—as it happens, Cosmos, his first movie after a fifteen-year absence from filmmaking, just had its first screening in New York and has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Kino Lorber—it'll take years of viewing and re-viewing just to assimilate him, if that's at all possible. The thirteen features and two shorts he completed between 1969 and 2015 may not be "enough," but they are an awful lot.
When I learned of his death, I was laid up with an ailment that made movement rather challenging, and certain types of concentration perhaps more so; with some resultant unasked-for time on my hands, I decided to check out three films that surround, temporally, his most famous film worldwide, the notorious 1981 Possession. As was the case for many American cinephiles of a certain age, Possession, in a ridiculously edited U.S. home video release cobbled together for the Extreme Horror market, was my first exposure to Zulawski, and it certainly did make an impression. I was not entirely surprised, trawling the Internet for writing on the maestro, to learn that the film's reputation as a genre film has exasperated some of our most exacting hierarchy minders, for instance the critical entity known as The Ferroni Brigade, who wrote in the intro to their 2012 interview with Zulaski: “Although associated with a visceral, trembling style and lamentably compartmentalized for his most lurid ideas—like the horror creature Isabelle Adjani shacks up with in Possession (1981)—Żuławski's work teems with the inventiveness of a highly cultured man, resulting in a provocative mix of big ideas and emotional torrents (mirrored in the director's decision to mostly reject conventional explanations, while conveying the themes with a painful and ecstatic nakedness, frequently extending to his female protagonists).” Now I don't want to bag on these guys like it's late 2009 or anything, but that "frequently extending to his female protagonists" strikes me as more than a touch coy. We'll get to that.
One crucial thing I discovered in revisiting 1975's L'important de c'est d'aimer, 1984's La femme publique, and 1985's L'amour braque is that, absence of Possession's Lovecraftian fifth-dimensional sex octopus notwithstanding, not one of the films is substantially less lurid than Possession—indeed, in a sense L'amour braque may beat it by several lengths—and that all of them are more or less the same film. And they are all films which, in spite of their letting each of their female leads fly their freak flags high and wide—or perhaps I should say, giving their female leads the opportunity to explore new and bold and unrepressed avenues of free expression—indulge in a pretty retrograde perspective on gender dynamics and/or relations. In each of the films, with this being LEAST the case in L'important, which is the only film of the batch with no basis in 19th-century Russian literature, the conception of woman is very Baudelaire High Romantic, with an early exit ramp on to amour fou Surrealism.
Woman—and all the better if she is young, proud, newly nubile woman (and again, in L'important the stress is slightly askew because the female lead is Romy Schneider, obviously beautiful but nearly 40 at the time of shooting and maybe playing someone who'd BEEN a lead in a Zulawski movie much earlier in her life) is both the vital life force and the destroyer of souls. Man is so flummoxed by Woman that he is literally divided by her. ("None of which equals the poison/welling up in your eyes/that show me my poor soul reversed..."—Baudelaire, "Poison," translation Richard Howard.) All of these movies are ostensibly love triangles but really, the males "competing" for Woman's love, such as it is, are twins albeit not doppelgangers—doppelgangers do show up to make a kind of peace, as in Possession—and the conflict between them is just the MAIN conflict taking place within Man himself. Woman, tormented by doubt and self-loathing, cannot be fully REALIZED without Man sacrificing Himself, allowing Himself to empty Herself into Him, and out of what He receives from Her, He shall create/destroy, create/destroy, create/destroy until somebody, most likely Him, just cannot take it anymore.
In the world view of these four Zulawski movies, there is one thing no Man, not even the most Highly Cultured Man, is immune to, and that thing is the name of Bongwater's third LP.
Given these circumstances, I don't think it's unfair to note that these Zulawski films are steered by a male gaze, but that they're steered by a nearly vehement male gaze. Vehement as in obsessive, mind you, not necessarily malevolent. It's amazing to see in film after film how Zulawski goes back to certain key, or you could say seminal images when considering his male protagonists: the blood on the face, the affected/infected eyes (at the end of L'amour braque the Prince Myshkin figure of the story has on similar yellow-eye contacts to Sam Neill's in Possession) and these signifiers have a certain correlative in the perfect grooming he gives to Valerie Kaprisky in La femme publique and particularly Sophie Marceau in L'amour braque, their first film together.
"Is she an intellectual?" "No, an actress." That's an exchange from L'important, and in both La femme publique and L'amour braque a manic divided male (played in the former film by Francis Huster, in the latter by Tchéky Karo) will call the female lead his "star."All of these movies are about moviemaking, and L'amour braque is possibly the most audacious in this respect, not least in its casting of Marceau, who was just about at the end of her run as French cinema's answer to Molly Ringwald at the time. Here she struts about and vamps it up and screams "I destroy everything I love" and just generally CANNOT BE CONTAINED. It is, I suppose, the inescapable primal aspect of the female performances in these movies that, multiple allusions to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov notwithstanding, leads to their misapprehension in the CineBroverse as, to borrow a phrase from a disgusted friend, "Emo breakup movies." (See here.)
It's worth remembering also that the allusiveness stretches every which way. L'amour braque, rather surprisingly, hits almost every actual plot point from The Idiot while managing to actually look (and feel) like a Pigalle-set-remake of Walter Hill's 1984 Streets of Fire. The Ferroni Brigade turn up their noses at the lurid, but it's not just the casting of Klaus Kinski in L'important that suggests Zulawski was conversant with sleaze cinema; elsewhere in the film Schneider's character is referred to as having appeared in a softcore film called Nymphocula, which might well be one of the millions of alternate titles one of Jess Franco's millions of Eurosex cheapies circulated under.
If you think I'm bringing all this up to "call out" Zulawski on several charges of Problematic, think again. As a predominantly heterosexual male of a certain age I can't honestly get into a snit over male gaze. But let's call a spade a spade here. What the Ferroni Brigade call "ecstatic nakedness" extending to Zulawski's "female protagonists" is arguably that, but it's mainly something else. And again: I am not complaining. What Zulawski brings to his views of all his lead actresses inspires a kind of LOOK AT HER awe that is...well, it's awe, is what it is. What I am saying—finally!— is that cinema deals in images and sounds prior to dealing in ideology, even if the images and sounds are arguably ideologically determined. What I'm saying is that the erotic chaos that Zulawski so convincingly simulates in his pictures is privileged over culture or "culture." Or maybe that his whole conception of culture is necessarily filtered through erotic chaos. As in L'amour braque, which depicts a production of The Seagull which may as well have been Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.
So maybe The Ferroni Brigade and the Birth. Movies. Death. bros have a little more in common than they believe. There are only so many ways I can put this, though, so here's Muddy Waters: