Most movies try to speedily establish a baseline for what constitutes “normal” within a particular world, then get busy fucking things up. Polish-French filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski, whose career retrospective continues at Cinefamily through the end of March (following a weeklong run of Possession, his most notorious work), doesn't have the patience for false tranquility. Average elapsed time before everything goes to hell in a Zulawski picture: approximately 1.4 seconds.
His feature debut, The Third Part of the Night (1971), opens with quoted lines from the Book of Revelation, emphasis on hail, fire, plague, etc.; the apparent protagonist immediately gets slaughtered, along with her small child. The Devil (1972), his next film, begins smack in the middle of what looks like a prison riot, except the prison is a convent. Another opening shot simply follows a young woman as she walks down the street — passing a building in flames along the way, with no explanation offered either then or later.
“It's not like in the movies or in books,” someone comes right out and says in 1985's L'amour braque, by way of a manifesto, “where everything is precise, thought-out, organized, with a clear-cut goal. Everything's chaos, chance, pain, disorder.”
Like his countryman and near-contemporary Roman Polanski, Zulawski spent his youth trying to avoid being exterminated by the Nazis, so it's not terribly difficult to see how he might have come by this philosophy. Still, Polanski's films, while often despairing, aren't the prolonged howl of incipient madness that Zulawski's fascinating but comparatively little-seen oeuvre represents. (His most recent film, La fidelité, was made a dozen years ago, but he's still alive and doesn't seem to have officially retired.)
To call Zulawski's style operatic would be misleading, as that term implies a certain degree of refinement; between the camera, which hurtles breakneck through scenes as if hotly pursued, and the actors, who rarely speak a line of dialogue if it can be shrieked, the overall effect comes closer to emotional Grand Guignol. Indeed, this series' concurrently running New York counterpart is called “Hysterical Excess,” and while Zulawski himself objected to that title in a recent New York Times article, it still better captures the midnight-movie vibe than does Cinefamily's perhaps slightly oversold “The Unbelievable Genius of …” (It's not a Ray Charles album, guys.) If you like your cinema cranked up to 11, Zulawski is definitely your man.
That said — and Possession as a magnificent exception acknowledged — Zulawski often is at his best when he's most restrained, tempering the insanity with at least a modicum of recognizable human behavior. You could even mistake The Third Part of the Night, inspired by Zulawski's father's experiences during World War II, for an ordinary historical docudrama, apocalyptic biblical prelude aside. For nearly an hour, it observes the struggle for survival in an occupied Polish city with standard-issue solemnity; when the hero offhandedly tells a friend early on that he's “not feeding lice anymore” — um, whaaa? — I furrowed my brow for a moment and then chalked it up to inept subtitle translation. Only in the film's increasingly demented second half does it become clear that the remark was quite literal: In an attempt to create a typhus vaccine, the Germans paid Polish citizens (including Zulawski's dad, in the real world) to attach thousands of lice to their bodies, via little boxes with a mesh opening on one side. This was considered a plum job by members of the Polish underground, because it guaranteed that you'd be left alone. Let me underline this: Zulawski's least crazy film is the World War II picture about people letting insects feed on them.
Zulawski's second effort, The Devil, effectively got him drummed out of Poland. Ostensibly set in 18th-century Prussia, it's actually a nightmarish allegory for the 1968 uprising of Polish students and intellectuals (in tandem with similar protests in France, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere), which didn't escape the government's notice. They apparently didn't take kindly to being likened to a sniveling, cowardly demon in human form, who spends the entire film hounding a confused young man, urging him to commit acts of senseless violence against his family, his friends, the woman he loves and society at large. Grimy, fervid, appalling, The Devil is one long, ultimately somewhat monotonous series of atrocities, and upon its release Zulawski was politely encouraged to take a hike. Whereupon he encamped to France and directed a surprise hit, The Important Thing Is to Love (1975), which won Romy Schneider the first César award for Best Actress, playing an over-the-hill movie star involved in a tempestuous love triangle with her impotent husband (pop star Jacques Dutronc) and a freelance photographer (Fabio Testi). This proved to be the ideal, paradoxical combination of Gallic nonchalance and Zulawski's hyperintensity, creating relationships so bizarrely complicated that their resolution doesn't seem preordained.
Suddenly a renowned auteur, Zulawski was hastily welcomed back to Poland, where he spent the next several years making his dream project: an adaptation of his great-uncle Jerzy Zulawski's acclaimed sci-fi epic The Lunar Trilogy, beginning with its first volume, On the Silver Globe. The story, written around the same time that Georges Méliès was making A Trip to the Moon, concerns a covert lunar expedition that winds up creating a new, mystical stone age society there, subsequently discovered by proper astronauts from Earth some decades later.
Alas, Zulawski-the-director again plainly fashioned his film as a caustic political allegory, and this time the brass got wind before it had even been finished, pulling the plug with about 20 percent of the screenplay still yet to be shot and destroying all existing sets and costumes. The crippled remains were assembled a decade later, with Zulawski narrating the details of the missing scenes over newly shot footage of ordinary Polish citizens strolling along the boulevard or riding escalators — a striking contrast with the '70s footage, which looks like Woodstock gene-spliced with the Zion sequences from the Matrix sequels. I found it borderline unwatchable, but fans of Southland Tales might have better luck.
As you might expect, Zulawski felt a bit demoralized by this experience. Back to France he went, and there he's mostly remained ever since (although 1996's Szamanka was shot in Warsaw and Krakow). His later films, building on ideas explored in The Important Thing Is to Love, frequently concern performance as a means of exorcism. The most intriguing is 1984's La femme publique, which in effect spends two hours teaching a very young Valérie Kaprisky (fresh from the Breathless remake) how to be a Zulawski actress, via a transformation that rivals Naomi Watts' in Mulholland Dr. He also perfected a device that I'm not sure has ever been given a formal name, which is the exact opposite of a shock cut — that is, cutting from something harrowing (an ongoing act of violence, a character in midhowl) to mundane placidity, not as a cheap contrast but as an odd sort of reassurance that such moments are just part of the natural order.
I'm less fond of the films starring Sophie Marceau, with whom Zulawski had a 15-year relationship (which ended right around the time he stopped working, hmm …), but even relative clunkers like 1989's My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days feature unforgettable moments, like a man presenting his beloved with two live crabs to use as a brassiere. I think that's a bit of French wordplay that didn't quite translate, as the film's hero (Detronc again) is slowly losing both his memory and his comprehension of spoken language. With Zulawski, though, you can never quite be sure.
THE UNBELIEVABLE GENIUS OF ANDRZEJ ZULAWSKI | March 9-April 1 | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | Cinefamily.org