Two or Three Things… I Know About Żuławski

By Daniel Bird

third-part-of-the-night-andrzej-zulawski-1.jpgThird Part of the Night, 1971

In art house cinema, less is (almost) always more. Think of the raptures critics experience during Robert Bresson’s films. Think of the British Film Institute’s former video label Connoisseur. If film is like wine, then the mark of a film connoisseur is the ability to make subtle distinctions. By contrast, lack of subtlety is often perceived to be the hallmark of the hoi polloi. I am talking about movies by the likes of Tony Scott and Michael Bay, films like Bad Boys II. So what does the film connoisseur do with Polish film-maker Andrzej Żuławski, arguably the least subtle of art house cinema’s heavy weights? Of course, Żuławski would be furious at being described as an art house filmmaker. After all, people go to see his films – at least in France – in a way they do not go and see those of Tarkovsky.

And he would be right too. L’Importance C’Est d’Amier and La Femme Publique have popular appeal in a way that Nostalgia and The Sacrifice do not. But does the popularity of Żuławski’s films mean that they are shallower than Tarkovsky’s? I can hear Żuławski muttering, or rather shouting, ‘Who gives a fuck?’ But I do. For me, audiences – certainly in the UK – are missing out. I guess Żuławski’s most obvious parallel is Paul Verhoeven – he is a filmmaker who ‘should know better’. But then Żuławski is less cynical than Verhoeven. Żuławski’s melodramas are heartfelt – they are not accompanied with inverted commas. So what has given Żuławski such a bad rap, at least with critics in England and the US? In one word, it is the hysterical nature of his films. Yes, Żuławski makes even Verhoeven look subtle. In the early Eighties, Żuławski’s masterpiece, Possession, was caught up in the ‘video nasties’ furore. In case you have forgotten, that is the one with Isabelle Adjani intimate with an octopus. Was it a metaphor for the id?

Unfortunately for Isabelle, it was not. The tentacle was very real. But for me, Possession was a revelation. Here was a film in which the inner word and outer world were not clearly delineated. In Possession, a metaphor literally fucks the lead actress. Clearly, I had to think. This is something that often doesn’t happen during films by a lot of arthouse favourites – usually their intellectual pretensions chime with my own, warming me in a glow that quickly veers from kinsmanship to smugness. No, Possession didn’t fit. It was simply just annoying. However, the scratchy VHS bootleg upon which I first saw the film demanded further viewings, and something strange happened – I started to think about two things which I had never thought of before – what is acting and where to put the camera?

third-part-of-the-night-andrzej-zulawski-2.jpgThird Part of the Night, 1971

I am rather embarrassed to say this, but these were troubling questions for my sixteen year old self. Put simply, they are deeply philosophical and psychological questions, not dissimilar to the pre-pubescent musings that get subsumed in wanting for sex and alcohol. So back to those two questions: I still do not know what acting is – all I know is that women are very good at it. I still do not know where to put the camera, but one thing I do know is that the camera is not a pair of eyes, it does not grant us access to an un-tampered reality, and this is something which I feel that – despite his tremendous feeling for actors – Ken Loach still does not understand.

Last year I had the opportunity to be the ‘making of’ guy on a Central European ‘euro-pudding’. The one thing I learned was how the camera distorts reality. Point the camera at the normally focused script girl and she would start fiddling with her hair. The normally miserable grip would masquerade as the ‘fun guy’ on set. Perhaps by offering distorted performances, Żuławski is searching for a truth that you will not find in a Ken Loach film? To be honest, I don’t know. All I know is that it works for me, sitting in the audience. But I would like to know why. Perhaps that is why Żuławski’s characters always appear a little mad – like those in Dostoevsky’s novels – because what they express is inner speech, and not the realistic and naturalistic language we encounter in the outer world?

That sounds too pretentious, but I do think that Żuławski’s attempts at filming DostoevskyLa Femme Publique and L’Amour Braque – are as worthy as those of Bresson – Pickpocket and Une Femme Douce. After all, Bresson and Żuławski share at least what critics might characterise as ‘formal awkwardness’ in approaching Dostoevsky. Żuławski’s acting, I think, deserves a book to itself. He’s never put himself on a pedestal, and succumbed to theorising. But a long, hard look at this approach – which has resulted in some staggering, exhausting performances by Romy Schneider, Isabelle Adjani, Valerie Kaprisky and Sophie Marceau – demands that we dispense with our ideas of naturalism and realism, and look back to Eisenstein’s interest in Meyerhold, or his enthusiasm for Noh theatre.

Ten years ago, I was tempted, at least, to root Żuławski in the tradition of Polish theatre, established by Grotowski. But, in hindsight, I was wrong – or at least partially so. The cynic in Zulawski – as can be seen most clearly in Possession – readily mocks the mystic. However, there is at least a tending in his films towards the spiritual – not matter how nervous – be it the opening of a window in Possession, or a shadow in La Fidelite. But I give up. Żuławski is a filmmaker I simply cannot tame, and that is why I think I will keep on returning to his films. They may be infuriating, but they are never boring. They may be as subtle as Bad Boys II but they are, nonetheless, as intellectually precise as those of Bresson.

Daniel Bird is a writer and film-maker.

Żuławski’s debut feature, Third Part of the Night, is available on dvd from Second Run and he will present the film in person at London’s Curzon Soho cinema at noon, Sunday 13th May.