Classic Corner: Love is the Most Important Thing

Although its reputation has grown exponentially over the past 40+ years, Andrzej Zulawski’s (1940 – 2016) horror masterpiece Possession remained greatly underseen due simply to the fact that it never had a proper digital release. That changed at the start of this year, when the horror platform Shudder finally made it available to stream. As expected for a film whose reputation as a blisteringly strange and disturbing underground favorite greatly preceded it, it proved an instant sensation, spurring discourse around the director online and across social media.

Yet, for all that that movie has been embraced as a full-on classic—no ‘cult’ qualifier needed—Zulawski’s 13 other pictures remain obscure, even to those who flocked to Possession as soon as it became available. While a number of those titles remain extremely hard to get your hands on, others are and have been readily available to stream. 

This has been the case for a while now with Zulawski’s third feature—his first made outside his native Poland—L’impotant c’est d’aimer (depending on the translation, Love is the Most Important Thing or The Most Important Thing: Love). The 1975 “existential melodrama,” to borrow the phrase used by the world’s foremost Zulawski scholar Daneil Bird in his booklet essay in the film’s Mondo Blu-ray release, has, at one point or another, been hosted by the likes of Kanopy, Mubi, and Criterion Channel (where it is currently available through the end of February). It’s fitting that, of all of Zulawski’s other films, this one should be so easy to watch, since it has always been his best known work in America after Possession. Arthouse audiences in the U.S. were first exposed to it in the ‘80s by way of California’s short-lived cinephile Xanadu Z-Channel, while its prevalence in Xan Cassavetes’s 2004 documentary about the history (and tragic end) of that station, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, kept it on people’s radar.

So too did its pedigree, it being by far Zulawski’s most star-studded production. Adapted from French author Christopher Frank’s novel of two years prior, La Nuit Americaine—the French translation of which is Day for Night, a title already taken by director Francois Truffaut two years prior—the film is a prime example of the “Euro-puddings” ubiquitous throughout the 60s and 70s. A French/Italian/German co-production, it stars celebrated Austrian idol Romy Schneider, Italian hunk Fabio Testi, French pop star Jacques Dutronc, and, last but certainly not least, notorious German madman Klaus Kinski. 

(The seemingly combustible combination of the notoriously volatile Zulawski and Kinski turned out to be, by all accounts, entirely copacetic. At least, neither pulled a gun on the other. However, the deadly serious Schieder took an instant dislike to on-screen love interest Testi, a former stunt-man turned stoic—some might say, dim—leading man in spaghetti westerns and giallos, who she considered utterly beneath her in spite of his friendliness and solid work ethic. In one particularly dramatic scene, in which her character thrashes him while in the throes of grief, Schneider very clearly and very painfully wallops him for real.)

A solid critical and commercial success in France upon release, L’impotant c’est d’aimer makes for a good introduction—or, for those who’ve already seen Possession, a perfect follow-up—to Zulawski’s oeuvre, and not just because of its accessibility and familiar cast. While it operates on the same hyperactive dream logic, and contains the same surrealistic flourishes—namely, an abundance of outlandish violence, perversity, and grotesquerie, as well as a preference for heady, often-abstract dialogue with little-to-no interest in narrative exposition—all of which can, at times, make Zulawski’s films difficult to follow, if not downright impenetrable, this is probably his most straightforward effort (although I would argue that all of his films reveal themselves as pretty straightforward upon repeat viewings).

The story can be summed up by the title: it’s simply about how the most important thing, out of everything, is love. Granted, Zualwski always hated that title, which was first suggested by some unnamed member of the production’s press office, although he eventually admitted it had grown on him, even if he does take a meta-moment to drag it in his final work, 2015’s Cosmos. But however one feels about the title, it’s certainly not misleading.

The intentionally convoluted plot centers around a love triangle—a device Zulawski would explore in several subsequent films—between freelance photographer Servais (Testi), down on her luck actress Nadine (Schneider), and Nadine’s depressed cinephile husband Jacques (Dutronc). These three lost souls find their way to one another right as they’re circling the drain: Servais is physically and morally exhausted from years spent paying off his addict father’s debts by shooting smut for a small-time gangster. Nadine is a recovering addict who, having failed to make a respectable career out of her vocation, is forced to take dire roles in sleazy exploitation pictures (such as a vampire flick called Nymphocula, about “dykes, a dwarf and a castle”). The two meet when Servaise sneaks unto the set of her latest softcore—or possibly hardcore, it’s never quite clear—production to grab some behind-the-scenes snapshots of a particularly gruesome scene in which her character makes love to a bloody corpse (all while being cruelly berated by a female director). Nadine catches him in the act and confronts him, setting off a chain of events that will end in both tragedy and redemption.

Following his flight from the set—which culminates in one of Zulawski’s trademark wild fistfights—a guilt-ridden Servais barrels headlong into Nadine’s life, openly attempting to steal her away from Jacques, who, we come to learn, saved Nadine from a life of drugs and prostitution but now feels he’s become a burden to her. Servais decides he will become her new savior, borrowing money from the same gangster he only recently got out from under in order to bankroll a production of Richard III produced by and starring Karl-Heins Zimmer (Kinski), a once celebrated German stage actor now gone to seed, in exchange for her being as cast as Queen Margaret.

(Everyone in the film is great—Schneider gives another in a long line of soulful, wounded performances; Testi makes great use of his masculine stoicism while also proving he could handle more complex material; and Dutronc, who would go on to star in Zulawski’s My Nights Are More Beautiful than Your Days some 14 years later, makes for the ideal tragic fool. But it’s Kinski who, unsurprisingly, walks away with the film. His performance as the openly homosexual Zimmer finds him moving from deranged camp comedy, to two-fisted gravitas, to heartbreaking tenderness, sometimes in the same scene.)

Here, as in Possession, romance becomes a war of attrition and love a throbbing wound (literally, as seen in the gory compositions that bookend the film). Zulawski’s sentiments prove a perfect match for melodrama, but L’impotant c’est d’aimer isn’t only a melodrama. It is also a deeply felt statement—personal and political—from an artist in exile, one that sees him looking both backwards and ahead. There is a real sense of dislocation that can be felt throughout the movie, no doubt stemming from Zulawski’s exodus from Poland following the censoring of his second feature, the infernal historical drama-cum-horror odyssey Diabel (Devil, 1972), by the communist government after they (correctly) read it as a thinly-veiled criticism the regime. Like several Pole directors before him—including Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski—Zulawski chose France as his new home, although in his case he already had a deep connection to the country, having spent part of his childhood and college years in Paris. 

The film also has a surprising air of prescience. In one pivotal scene, Nadine and her theater troupe listen to their director read a critic’s brutal pan, which describes the opening night performance (which Zulawski stages as a really cool-looking samurai epic in homage to Akira Kurosawa) as “Excessive, dark, over the top…expressionistic without reason…a mishmash of contradicting intentions and random ideas to the point of which the only point is chaos…” Zulawski may well have been reading missives from the future, given that there is zero daylight between those lines and the ones that critics would use to describe his work, always too daring, weird, and original to garner middlebrow accolades.

Closer to home, the film seems to anticipate Zulawski’s own marital issues, as a couple of years after the release of  L’impotant c’est d’aimer, his wife, the Polish actress Małgorzata Braunek (who starred in his first two features), left him for an interloper. This, along with his second and far more brutal clash with his native government—who had invited him back to Poland to work after his L’impotant c’est d’aimer received international acclaimover his would-be sci-fi epic On the Silver Globe, served as the inspiration for Possession six-years later. Unsurprisingly, that film comes at the subject of marital fidelity from a much harsher and darker angle.

While all of this background adds to the impact of L’impotant c’est d’aimer, none of it is needed to appreciate the film. Viewers mature enough to handle big swings of emotion without snickering will discover a melodrama unlike any other, while those who found themselves hypnotized by the extremity of Possession will have plenty here to keep them entertained, including what might just be the most sinister and hypnotic orgy scene ever filmed outside of an actual porno (eat your heart out, Stanley Kubrick). On an aesthetic and technical level, Zulawski is second-to-none, with L’impotant c’est d’aimer featuring the maddeningly complex mise-en-scene and dynamic camerawork that defines all of his films, the latter of which is particularly astounding, given the fact that the Steadicam hadn’t been invented yet. Special mention is owed to  Zulawski’s loyal and long-suffering camera operator Andrzej Jaroszewicz for his work on the picture. 

For as ugly as much of what we appears on screen is—and if the film has any major flaw, it’s the way in which its sexual politics vacillate between refreshingly non-judgemental and fiercely reactionary—it also contains plenty of beauty, although it’s hard to say what element is most striking: the way the camera captures the earthy Schneider, her face shorn of any makeup in the majority of her scenes; the deep reds, shadowy blacks and blazing whites of the lighting; the typically breathtaking set design, which looks completely lived-in even as it feels like something from out of a dream; or composer Georges Delerue’s achingly magisterial music, a companion piece to his iconic score from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963).As Western audiences move on from Possession in their discovery of Zulawski, they will find a body of work as  original and provocative as that of any filmmaker before or since. Volumes could be written about the themes—personal, political, philosophical, spiritual, magical—he explored. But, as anyone who has seen all of his work can tell you, at the end of the day, love really was the most important thing.

“Love is the Most Important Thing” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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