The mid-1980s were a time of stylistic excess, with loud pastel colors and big hairdos and neon-tinged nightlife, and even if Paris didn't quite resemble the hyperrealist pastiche Andrzej Żuławski constructs in L'Amour Braque, certainly the world onscreen feels oddly familiar. The Reagan era of American politics, the glossy sheen of TV shows such as Miami Vice, the dawn of the MTV generation: these are my frames of reference for Żuławski's film, shot in 1984 and released one year later, and for the French pop cinema of that era when pulp entertainment vaguely resembled high-end fashion advertisements with some haute pretensions of grandeur. Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva and Luc Besson's Subway were frivolous rushes of action-sex-sensation, seemingly fueled by cocaine and club music. What then to make of L'Amour Braque, shot within this plastic cultural landscape by an exiled, brashly ironic, intellectually provocative and emotionally explosive Polish film director from his adaptation of Dostoyevsky's epic-sized, violent and philosophically scattershot Christian parable The Idiot?
Beautifully photographed in expressively vibrant hues by renowned French cinematographer Jean François Robin, using the visual style of Żuławski's camera that pursues actors as they careen through streets, up winding staircases, and rushing through hallways into common spaces that they routinely demolish hand-over-fist, L'Amour Braque is one of the best kinds of entertainment: unclassifiable. Opening with a heist with the fluidity of a musical number timed to the choppy nervous rhythm of heavy breathing and adrenaline-infused panic, four men with guns, dressed in jumpsuits and Disney character masks, bash their way into an opulent bank. The handful of robberies and break-ins throughout the movie are punctuated by a purple haze of bombs going off, flamethrower carnage, and cackling verbal nonsense that's a crazy mix of pidgin French, slang, poetry, pop culture references and allusions (some literary, some historic, some seemingly private jokes meant to throw us off).
The dialogue was written by Etienne Roda-Gil, a much revered, audacious experimental songwriter taking his first stab at screenwriting. The resulting text moves beyond Dostoyevsky and is nowhere near the self-conscious cool of Beneix or Besson films. It seems to have been written in the spirit of radical, love-crazy joy and hot idealism, as well as a belief that we're all damned in the end. Roda-Gil and Żuławski are an inspired team, both radical spirits willing to push for something beyond our narrow definitions of naturalism, and the sheer soaring reach of the script winds up getting much closer to the depths of the human heart.
The lead bank robber, Mickey (Francis Huster, returning from Żuławski's previous film La femme publique), is spending all his newfound cash on purchasing Marie (Sophie Marceau), the girl he loves. She's one of those girls we might politely call an escort—a rare one, barely legal, but with eyes that reflect a much richer history of experience. With petulant lips and a Lulu wig, dresses that seem appropriate to a 1930s flapper, and a cunning mix of streetwise sexual power and closely kept vulnerability, she's the ultimate dream girl for an exuberant, "bite your teeth into the ass of life" guy like Mickey. And if the story were merely about them, and Mickey's efforts to steal her away from the vicious gang of pimps, gangsters and corrupt theater managers (!) who own her, maybe it would simply be a tale of boy-steals-girl-away-from-ogres.
But Dostoyevsky, Żuławski and Roda-Gil have a different game in mind, with the moral center of L'Amour Braque coming from Léon (Tchéky Karyo, who went on to stardom in such films as La Femme Nikita). He's the Holy Fool, an innocent from Budapest who Mickey encounters on the train and immediately befriends. Holding to the belief that "a man who has both a woman and a true friend is immune to all the laws and injustices of mankind," Mickey puts Léon and Marie together, thinking the idiot-savant will protect the dream girl, but we're clued in to how complicated this triangle will become right from the searing moment when Léon first lays eyes on her, when time seems to stop in a Żuławski close-up and the first words out of his mouth are, "You're beautiful."
The most pure moments of love in L'Amour Braque, and the most painful betrayals, are found in the scenes between Léon and Marie, and sometimes it's difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. During a tender love scene between them, the virgin Léon gasps, "I'm bleeding!" when in fact, she corrects him, "No, you're coming." And though much of the film concentrates on Léon exacting horrific revenge on his enemies (the most convoluted of which involves Marie acting in a hyperkinetic version of Chekhov's The Seagull), the actual tragic element of the story, and the greater eruption of violence, is in the inevitable doom that must result from the love triangle of Léon, Mickey and Marie—the thief who will kill for love, the innocent who cannot tell a lie, and the beautiful woman who exists in the voluptuous gray zone between them.
Though Huster gives a sweat-inducing performance bursting with eruptions of joy and rage, and Karyo is the soulful, wide-eyed sensitivity of L'Amour Braque, Żuławski has always been particularly drawn into his actresses. Romy Schneider's wounded bird actress on the verge of career destruction in L'important C'est D'aimer, Valerie Kaprisky's model-actress using her body as an instrument pushed to the outer limits of physical extremity in La femme publique, and of course Isabelle Adjani's legendary operatic primal scream of a performance in Possession are joined by Marceau's work here. She's a more youthful version of that kind of super-activity, that emotional availability, that wide-reaching vibrancy that Żuławski finds in his female stars. Even though Marie's destiny is tragic, she's far from a victim; she's perhaps the most knowing of all the characters in Żuławski's body of work. As an actress, Marceau must have tapped into something that went beyond the screen, since Żuławski had a 15-year relationship with her and she went on to appear in his subsequent features Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days), La note bleu and La fidélité.
If you're just starting out with the films of Andrzej Żuławski, best not to dive into L'Amour Braque first—though it's one of his most rewarding films if you're up for his cinema, which western audiences often feel is cranked up to a fever pitch of intensity that veers into overacting. Yet somehow we're able to accept the rhythms of David Lynch, which are hyperreal in their own way yet pushed in the opposite direction, so slow it seems to be happening underwater or so entrenched in subconscious yearning that we label it "dreamlike" when in fact it's more "real" in its portrait of American life than most cinema, period. Żuławski, on the other hand, is aggressive, eruptive, vibrant, and sometimes the characters lapse into seizures and lose control of their bodies or wind up bleeding spontaneously or shrieking in a kind of anarchic passion. Why do we have an easier time accepting David Lynch's quieter level of super-activity, whereas Żuławski is often considered too much? It's the human heart splashed onscreen like the durable, noisy muscle it is, stripped of false sentiment and politesse. And L'Amour Braque, which could be translated as "mad love," is maybe the best title of any Żuławski film (if we were to screen his films at, say, New York's Lincoln Center, you could slap that label on the entire program and apply it to much of his body of work).
But there are additional demands on the viewer for L'Amour Braque, including a narrative that is straightforward but obscured (or illuminated, depending on how you feel about the content) by the poetry of the language. While Żuławski isn't making this film as some kind of snooty game for smart people to play "guess the reference" (you feel his cinema more in your entire body, really—including your very guts), one has to be adventurous and willing to ride the wave of satire, allusion, loquacity, and the stitched-togetherness of it all, as well as the ultraviolence; it's a thick, tastebud-blasting stew of high culture and pulp convention, two qualities that don't often go together, but truly are what we get from someone like Dostoyevsky. Remember, he doesn't spend 500 pages philosophizing in Crime and Punishment before the murders take place—there's a brutal shock less than 100 pages into the book, followed by a second murder so unfair and unexpected that it's a slap in the face, followed by a long stretch of guilt in the aftermath of horror. L'Amour Braque is like that: an action picture for those curious to discuss what morality is, what love and trust and goodness are all about, and how difficult they are to realize in this crazy and unpredictable nightmare world. And ultimately, at the end of the day, you're either with it or you're not. But I hope you can catch a sense of my enthusiasm from this review—are there any others willing to take the plunge into the maelstrom of love and madness?
Jeremiah Kipp's writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.