A pair of TV-produced half-hour shorts from 1967, Pavoncello and The Song of the Triumphant Love, often shown in black and white but originally shot in color (and present in this form at the BAMcinématek), represent the first independent directing work of Andrzej Zulawski’s career after serving as Andrzej Wajda’s assistant on Samson, The Ashes, and the omnibus Love at Twenty’s segment. Eerie, unabashedly romantic, ripe with masterful camera movements that still make film students take notes to this day, these two miniatures remain surprisingly fresh. Both are adapted from great writers’ minor short stories (by Stefan Żeromski and Ivan Turgenev, respectively), and both focus on disruptive love, while prominently featuring trance-like states of being. Last but not least, each film seems obsessed with fragility of sexless marriages crumbling under siege from illicit passion. In that respect, The Song of Triumphant Love particularly plays like an uncannily precocious version of Zulawski’s Possession, even while sporting the added flavor of being something akin to a Roger Corman AIP Edgar Allen Poe quickie, only shot on the other side of the iron curtain.
The Devil, the 1972 film that got Andrzej Zulawski kicked out of Poland, remains one of his fiercest, if least accessible, reveries. Overwrought even by its maker’s standards, it dramatizes the late 18th-century partition of Poland as a free-floating nightmare of near-cosmic proportions. Wojciech Pszoniak plays a thinly veiled version of a secret policeman trying to subvert a young idealist’s fervor into an act of pro-regime violence. The overtones of the then-recent political mayhem of May 1968, which saw Polish communist authorities provoking young intellectuals into self-defeating acts of protest, became clearly visible only after the movie was finished and shelved for years. Some inspired programmer has still to come up with the idea of pairing this deadly serious celluloid frenzy with Ken Russell’s The Devils, so that they play together as a midnight double-bill made in…Dante’s inferno?
Before he tampered with Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in Mad Love, Andrzej Zulawski made The Public Woman, a startling, indirect adaptation of another work by the same author—namely, the white-hot political tale of terror and conviction, The Possessed. Rather than taking the novel’s plot at face value, Zulawski embedded it in a postmodern frame of reference, telling a story of an actress playing in a film adaptation of Dostoyevsky and being consumed by two on-set relationships: one with the movie’s Svengali-like director, the other with a poor and radical Czech immigrant terrorist. Levels of fiction and reality often mingle in the 1984 film, both on set and off. If Dostoyevsky’s work was all about the perils of harnessing actions out of ideas, Zulawski’s The Public Woman is about the ever-growing TV-enhanced blur between the two. Valérie Kaprisky gives an animated performance that includes notable portions of hyper-energetic naked dancing, while Francis Huster (as her director-cum-Pygmalion) manages to be both carnal and otherworldly, his bleached hair perpetually on the verge of drawing electric sparks that seem to gush from his mind.
“An innocent guy discovers he’s not that innocent after all” was Andrzej Zulawski’s own demure way of synopsizing 1985’s Mad Love, loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and steeped in neon-lit, disco-fueled energy that yielded the director’s most hyperkinetic work to date. It opens with a hoot of a bank robbery, perpetrated by a Disney-masked commando of supremely balletic thugs, and filmed in sweeping deep-focus tracking shots that would give Orson Welles pause. Whatever happens next (and that’s not always easy to discern), has to do with half of the Parisian underworld being torn apart by a war over a purring cutie-pie of a mole, played by the 18-year-old Sophie Marceau as a cross between Louise Brooks and a Jacques Tourner cat woman. The movie is all about explosive forms of decadence, and yet it’s most concerned with looking for traces of innocence and beauty atop the garbage pile of what Zulawski terms “the deadly boredom of capitalism.” In that, it plays much like a visually beefed-up sequel to That Most Important Thing: Love.
Based on a debut script by the hugely controversial writer Manuela Gretkowska, 1996’s The Shaman is a voodoo-fueled riff on
BAMcinématek’s “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski” runs from March 7—20. For more information, click here.