Love, to Andrzej Zulawski, is a tumultuous struggle to satisfy one’s misplaced desire, a self-destructive march into the abyss in order to free those trapped by that desire. This love in the Polish director’s films is epic in scale, as his characters are prone to throwing themselves wholeheartedly into their doomed romantic mission. This isn’t the realm of sentimentality, because love here is violent and obsessive and all-encompassing.
L’Important C’est D’aimer’s love triangle between a brooding photographer, Servais Mont (Fabio Testi), a struggling actress, Nadine Chevalier (Romy Schneider), and her ridiculous, cheerfully self-loathing husband, Jacques Chevalier (Jacques Dutronc), is set within an absurd world of low-level gangsters, sleazy porn merchants, suicidal clowns, and theater queens. And in a casting coup that fits perfectly within the milieu, madman Klaus Kinski stars as a debonair thespian, Karl-Heinz Zimmer, raging his way through the on-stage role of Richard III, though this mercurial actor’s most explosive moment happens off stage in his response to a negative press review. He picks a fistfight with two smarmy bourgeois onlookers before absconding with their tart girlfriends for the night. “You’re crazy,” someone tells him a few scenes later, to which Karl-Heinz delightfully responds, “No, I’m rich!”
Zulawski’s handheld camera stalks the film’s characters, lurching alongside them through Parisian apartments lined with bookshelves and into restaurants where glasses of wine and cups of coffee seem destined to be thrown at the nearest person or surface. This may sound like an over-the-top Euro-art psychodrama, but it’s quite restrained by Zulawski’s standards. Most of the time, his characters aren’t verbally and physically laying siege on one another—as they do for the entire running time of the anarchic 1972 period film The Devil and the 1981 horror film Possession. They’re accompanied by a lush orchestral score by Georges Delereu, who also composed the themes for Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. Close-ups abound of the central characters in moments of luminous stillness, such as an early moment of soul-encroaching vulnerability where Nadine, lying on the floor ready to shoot a scene in a softcore porn, whispers to Servais, “No photographs please.”
Nadine is given the opportunity to act as Lady Anne opposite Karl-Heinz, and when her nerves get the best of her and she flees from the theater, she’s pursued by the man. As he comforts her with a gentle kiss, he not only compliments her beauty but, in a poetic gesture, states that he would give anything to resemble her instead of being cursed with his own ugly, freakish form. And when Servais shows up to also provide comfort to the woman for whom he’s fallen head over heels, Karl-Heinz contemptuously dismisses him with an indifferent flick of his hand, as if the vulnerability that the actor allowed himself to express has given him license to own Nadine.
Schneider, who embodies the very heart of L’Important C’est D’aimer, may deliver a performance that tops even Isabelle Adjani’s wide-eyed, operatically voluptuous turn in Possession. She startles for the way she conveys something buried death and twisted inside Nadine. Hers is a fearless performance not because she gets naked, in the figurative sense (the nudity is, in fact, quite chaste), but because she allows herself to be so vulnerable. Throughout, it’s as if we can see all of Nadine’s nerve endings, along with the dignity it takes for a cracked-up woman to work through her mania.