Loosely adapted from Christopher Frank’s plot-heavy bestseller La Nuit Américaine, Andrzej Zulawski’s first movie made in exile is a meditation on the preposterousness of being a couple, as well as on the impossibility of not becoming one. In that, it plays like an unwittingly perfect companion piece to Nicholas Roeg’s 1980 masterpiece Bad Timing.
The story of a déclassé Parisian actress named Nadine Chevalier (Romy Schneider)—reluctantly slumming in tawdry exploitation flicks—whose fate suddenly changes as she becomes a subject of manifold interest for a hip porn picture snatcher, Servais Mont (Fabio Testi), is all about death of one couple and a slow emergence of another. As Testi slowly asserts his grip on Schneider’s life, her boyish cinephile of a husband (Jacques Dutronc in a masterful turn) achingly fades away, and—by the end of the movie—is literally out of the picture.
The star here is the César-winning Schneider (seen largely unadorned by her usual cine-glamour), who was so enamored of ?u?awki’s debut feature, The Third Part of the Night, that she contacted him in order to collaborate on a future project. As great as Schneider’s slightly disheveled Nadine is, the movie’s true center of gravity is Dutronc as her ever-prancing husband-child, as acutely inadequate to his wife’s sexual ripeness as he is steeped in the world of movie memorabilia—even owning a poster of that greatest of mismatched-lovers tales, King Kong.
No less than Shakespeare’s Richard III, which figures prominently in the film as a Kurosawa-inspired production starring Nadine as Lady Anne and Klaus Kinski’s über-thespian Karl-Heinz Zimmer as Richard, That Most Important Thing: Love itself deals with the tyranny of biology. Beauty and vitality are distributed with blatant injustice: Nadine is growing older only as she begins to know herself for the first time, Jacques’s hunger of love is only matched by his impotence, while the movie’s paragon of prowess and bland male beauty, Servais, seems despondent amid all the crass orgies he’s hired to cover and sell.
The movie is at once immersive and distancing—propelled by magnificent tidal waves of Schneider’s highly emotional performance, and yet kept in check by Zulawski’s formal self-consciousness. Largely handheld, if not always conspicuously so, That Most Important Thing: Love is the least frantic of director’s efforts (he even admitted to it feeling “not entirely his own”) and includes some Godardian bursts of Georges Delerue’s score, sometimes exploding literally mid-conversation. All the signature Zulawski themes—unquenched erotic longing, the pain of rejection, decadent sexual vortex—are present, as well as the director’s subliminal wacky humor (largely courtesy of a bunch of sub-Runyonesque thugs, cutting deals in the shady Paris demimonde as if they were waiting for orders from Bob le Flambeur himself).
The film ends with Schneider’s character naturally arriving at the utterance of devotion she was unable to spit out in the very first shot, where it was scripted and ruthlessly milked from her by an abrasive female director of, yes, Nymphocula. By finally professing love for a beaten-up, helpless man, Nadine transcends the tawdriness of the world around her and emerges somewhat soiled, but basically untarnished. That Most Important Thing: Love eschews Zulawski’s obsession with Polish history. It throws itself into the found rubbish heap of capitalist excess, digs through it and manages to salvage something humane and touching out of the waste.
BAMcinématek’s “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski” runs from March 7—20. For more information, click here.