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An Andrzej Zuławski Retrospective: La fidélité

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Over the last four months, I’ve done what I think might be an internet first: a complete examination of the films of Polish director Andrzej Zuławski from his short films, The Story of Triumphant Love and Pavoncello in 1969 (though I believe there are a few earlier, unavailable student films I missed), all the way through his final film, Cosmos (2015). Zuławski unfortunately passed away in February of this year and the series primarily began as a tribute to a great artist, and hopefully a way to encourage Diabolique’s readers to seek out far more of his work than just Possession (1981).

I went slightly out of order with this series for a variety of reasons, but concluding it with a discussion of La fidélité (2000, aka Fidelity) seems strangely appropriate: it has a melancholic, even tragic tone, it is a film about loss and grief, and is about the end of a profoundly affecting relationship, both onscreen and off. Though Cosmos was his last film — a title I actually tackled quite early in the series, because I was fortunate enough to see its New York premier in February — for a lot of years I think people assumed La fidélité would be the end of his filmography; it is followed by a 15 year gap. He did write a number of novels during this period, books I am enraged have not yet been translated into English, though hopefully that will change in the next few years.

Writing about Zuławski’s films has not, I’m sort of amused and sort of horrified to admit, been unlike living as a character in one of his films. There have been plenty of moments of exhaustion and hysteria, floods of crying, and even a subway freak out or two. In a strange and unexpected sense, writing these essays has become a journey of personal discovery; engaging with his films has not only been a way to learn things about myself and my perhaps often repressed emotional life, but a way to express things that I otherwise don’t know how to say. In the film’s source material, La Princesse du Clèves, a character states, “There are those to whom we dare give no sign of the love that we feel for them, except in things that do not touch them directly; and, though one dares not show them that they are loved, one would at least like them to see that one does not wish to be loved by anyone else.”

This is also a major theme of La fidélité, a film whose central characters engage with the world through literature and photography, often saying things about love — or to their lovers — through art or the works of other artists. And in a sense, these essays have become a long love letter, one without a definite conclusion; unlike La fidélité, which is a melancholic look at unfulfilled love likely made as a monument to the end of Zuławski’s long relationship with actress (La fidélité’s star) Sophie Marceau, one which spanned the better part of fifteen years.

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I have to admit that despite the considerable amount of work put into this series over the last four months and the related anxiety it has caused (it could be a coincidence, but I just found my first ever gray hair), I am genuinely sorry to see it end. I’m not being facetious when I say that it’s one of the great artistic injustices of last few decades that Zuławski was not able to complete more films. It’s equally an injustice that La fidélité is so ignored, seen as a conventional, melodramatic departure from his earlier works, and so unfairly maligned. It is a rich work with quite a complicated plot that includes everything from action sequences and political intrigue to themes of appearances, media, advertising, and journalism, though I have chosen to focus on its most important theme: love.

The film follows Clélia (Marceau), a sought after photographer who has recently accepted a position in Paris with a controversial media conglomerate, run by the notorious Mac Roi (Michel Subor), because her mother (Magali Noël) has fallen seriously ill. Though she is independent and generally avoids romantic relationships, a chance encounter with Clève (Pascal Greggory) changes her mind and soon leads to marriage. It also just so happens that Clève’s family, owners of a well-regarded publishing company, have sold their business to Mac Roi and Clève was intending to marry into Mac Roi’s family. Things are further complicated when Clélia meets another photographer, the young Némo (Guillaume Canet), and the two develop an immediate, intense attraction. Though she refuses to begin an affair, it still spells trouble for her marriage.

La fidélité is a loose adaptation of the seventeenth century novel, La Princesse du Clèves, a tragic romance set during the reign of Henry II in sixteenth century France and allegedly written by Madame de La Fayette. With precise attention to detail and a roster of characters based on real historical figures, the novel follows its (fictional) heroine, the Mademoiselle de Chartes. Just a teenager, her mother brings her to court to find a husband and she eventually settles on the unremarkable, but dependable Prince de Clèves. But soon after their wedding, she meets and falls in love with the philandering Duke de Nemours, though they do not begin an affair and she remains faithful to her husband. Due to an unrelated scandal at court, her husband finds out she is in love with another man, discerns his identity, and dies — presumably of a broken heart —  refusing to believe her faithfulness. Out of a sense of duty to his memory, she refuses to wed the Duke de Nemours, withdrawals from the world, and passes away in solitude.

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Zuławski adapted a number of literary works over the years, namely two of Dostoyevsky’s novels in La femme publique and L’amour braque, but he generally went quite far afield of his source material. La fidélité, though, is a surprisingly faithful rendition of La Princesse du Clèves — despite its modern day setting and themes of photography, art versus commerce, and mass media — and follows the novel’s central concept of choosing honor and duty over love. The novel has an overriding sense that truly passionate love is an unpredictable, destructive force, a theme that can also be found in the majority of Zuławski’s films and certainly in La fidélité.

Though La fidélité may seem restrained or even melodramatic compared to Zuławski’s more outre works like Possession (1981) or Szamanka (1996), a common core of romantic frenzy runs through all of his films (with the possible sole exception of Boris Godounov, though even this contains a side plot involving a complicated engagement). In La Princesse du Clèves, something Clèves says to his wife also summarizes the tone of the film: “My thoughts are violent and uncertain, and I am not able to control them; I no longer think myself worthy of you, nor do I think you are worthy of me; I adore you, I hate you, I offend you, I ask your pardon, I admire you, I blush for my admiration: in a word, I have nothing of tranquillity or reason left about me.”

In John Campbell’s Questions of Interpretation in La Princesse du Clèves, he wrote, “Passionate love is seen as a force which is not just universal but also inexplicable, surging up despite all reason, and defying the will’s attempts to keep it in check. The frequency of terms such as surprise and étonnement [astonishment] is one sign of this spontaneous combustion. It is significantly for Nemours, not for her husband, that Mme de Clèves feels the initial shock of surprise” (23). This is certainly the case with Clélia’s contrasted introductions to Clève — who she only tolerates meeting because she wants to photograph a flower arrangement he is purchasing from a shop — and, later, to Némo. Many of Zuławski’s films feature a central romantic relationship that begins with this shock of recognition and he treats the irrational concept of love at first sight as a given, a fundamental component of the universe of his films, while also suggesting that madness, hysteria, and violence will follow.

Though it plays out in different ways, as in La Princesse du Clèves, La fidélité begins with a mother trying to convince her daughter that it is time to settle down. There is something inherently repressive in this notion of responsible coupling and in La fidélité, Clélia’s mother admits, “I never loved your father,” explaining that she stayed because of her pregnancy; it soon becomes clear that her mother had an affair with Mac Roi, who could plausibly be Clélia’s biological father, but that her mother chose duty over passion. Mother-daughter relationships generally linger on the periphery in Zuławski’s films, though La femme publique, Szamanka, and La fidélité depict them, often with a challenge for the daughter (the protagonist in each of these films) not to repeat her mother’s mistakes. In both La femme publique and Szamanka, and especially in Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, father figures are absent at best, but are generally also guilty of emotional cruelty and physical abuse.

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As a result, Zuławski’s lovers often come together in perhaps unexpected ways that evoke two children at play, or a parent caring for a child. In interviews, Zuławski has sometimes said that he views his characters as children, evidence of which can be found in films like The Third Part of the Night, L’important c’est d’aimer, Possession, La femme publique, and Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, where romantic love is less often expressed in erotic terms and more in domestic gestures, expressions of almost parental care: scenes of bathing, dressing, or feeding a loved one, carefully tending to wounds, and, quite often, preparing them for bed.

When Clève and Clélia become engaged, there is no formal proposal; he slips an engagement ring on her finger (once his mother’s) while they are lying in bed, and they both agree that a condition of their marriage is that they will never wear pajamas to sleep. They happily jump around and frolic naked in bed together, but in a thoroughly childlike fashion. Play, performance, acting, and masks are all integral components of Zuławski’s films, particularly in terms of how individuals establish personal identity and in terms of how couples negotiate romantic transactions; in addition to La fidélité, his films like L’important c’est d’aimer, La femme publique, Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, La note bleue, Szamanka, and even Cosmos focus on these themes.

Similarly, of La Princesse du Clèves, Campbell wrote, “galanterie [gallantry or courtship] can be worn as the socially acceptable mask which hides the reality of an overwhelming passion” (19). Later, “From the term galanterie is slowly stripped its innocent veneer of playing games, as the painful consequences of love-activities are revealed. The semantic area of love is thus mapped out by an accumulation of associations which place terms such as amour, passion, inclination and galanterie in the perspective of an overwhelming, irrational force which leaves destruction in its wake” (20). While it’s easy to grasp the English meanings of these French words, they highlight the important range of romantic experiences detailed in the film: everything from the brief sexual affairs Clélia initially prefers to the passionate romantic love she feels for Némo, to the more staid love bred of comfort, familiarity, family, and duty that her mother touted, and marriage as a result of economic gain, which Clève was supposed to pursue. Both the novel and the film bring to the forefront the notion that either choice — duty or love — has irrevocable consequences.

In both the film and the novel, it is a woman’s rejection of “this idea of passionate love, as a blind and potentially destructive force” that sets the tone (Campbell 24). Campbell wrote, “It is in Mme de Chartres’ [the mother of Mme de Clèves] perspective of a violent, irrational, dangerous and essentially treacherous passion that the relationships of all three main characters evolve. Clèves and Nemours have the same kind of totally obsessive love as Mme de Clèves. All three submit to it. It is presented as a ruling passion, that which explains or motivates everything else” (28). While La fidélité in some ways deals with manners, masks, and the importance of appearances, it is essentially about this irrational, destructive force that takes over the lives of Clélia, Clève, and Némo.

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And while Zuławski’s films often have violent endings that center on murder, suicide, the dissolution of the self, and even apocalypse — generally brought about by romantic complications —  La fidélité has perhaps his strangest (one taken almost directly from the novel): after Clève’s death, Clélia is free to pursue Némo, but instead removes herself to a Buddhist convent. In her absence, a grieving Némo makes a film about her life, itself based on and titled La Princesse du Clèves. Campbell refers to the parallel to this in the novel as a “quasi-monastic commitment,” a “radical” interpretation or expression of love (28). He wrote, “a total withdrawal from society is preferable to being trapped in the twisting coils of passionate love” (28).

Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that Zuławski almost never used one literary source, preferring to layer and intertwine references. The second major strain of influence within the film — and one quoted quite often by the characters — is the work of poet W.H. Auden. Love was one of the overarching themes of Auden’s career and he came to assert not only that was love a choice, but that fidelity and commitment are a supreme, almost religious duty; true love is a devotional experience not conditional upon reciprocation. Born in England in 1907, Auden lived, at least for the time, relatively openly as a gay man. Like Zuławski, he was something of an exile from his home country; after years of travelling (he taught English and frequented gay bars in Weimar Berlin, served as an ambulance driver in the Spanish Civil War, and reported on the beginning of the war in China in 1937), the outbreak of WWII drove him to settle in New York.

It was there that he met the love of this life when he was 32 years old: an American teenager named Chester Kallman, a precocious reader and prospective poet. In Sherill Tippins’ February House: The Story of W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Brooklyn, she wrote that not long after Auden met Kallman and began to spend time with the boy and his family in Brooklyn, “He began to analyze — in his poetry and conversation — the personal responsibilities and commitment that he was convinced should accompany true love… He looked to his love affair for the raw material from which to create his poems” (52).

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Auden’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, quoted a letter Auden wrote to a friend just a few weeks after meeting Chester: “Of course I know that Love as a fever does not last, but for some years now I’ve known that the one thing I really needed was marriage, and I think I have enough experience and judgement to know that this relationship is going to be marriage with all its boredoms and rewards” (258). During this period, Auden simultaneously began to consider the responsibility of artists during wartime (alongside his good friend and travelling partner, writer Christopher Isherwood, he was ostracized by the British literary community for his pacifism), as well as the role of religion and faith within his life. Tippins wrote, “This pure, redemptive love — an experience that instantly revealed all in clear, objective, moral perspective — was one form of faith that Auden believed he could embrace. Pledging allegiance to an unembodied force was against his nature, but seeking the sacred through the love of another individual made absolute sense” (147).

Auden was fascinated by the idea that he found himself in Chester; not that they were a union of opposites, but somehow fundamentally the same being. Not long after meeting him — their relationship that became serious quite quickly — he wrote the poem “Heavy Date.” One verse asserts, “I believed for years that / Love was the conjunction / Of two oppositions; / That was all untrue; / Every young man fears that / He is not worth loving: / Bless you, darling, I have / Found myself in you.” Carpenter wrote of their differing sexual preferences; sex was a waning aspect of their relationship that faded away over the years as Chester began to pursue other affairs more and more brazenly, though they remained companions for life, spending half of each year or more together. Auden was determined to see his commitment through, despite the difficulties, and continued to see it as a sacred act; he wrote in a letter to Chester, “with my body, I worship yours” (Carpenter 263).

In La fidélité, Clève declares himself to be a passionate fan of the poet early in the film and it is Auden’s words that define the three key moments in his relationship with Clélia. Though he is aware of his love for her immediately, she is more elusive and they come together accidentally, because Mac Roi invites her to his sister and Clève’s engagement dinner. Ecstatic at seeing her again — he admits that he has returned to the flower shop where they met every day, and has taken to sleeping in his office, the location of their first, spontaneous sexual encounter, in case she should show up there — and causes a scene that results in the end of his engagement with Mac Roi’s sister.

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Though Clélia obviously dislikes emotional intimacy, preferring to be alone with her work, she softens to Clève partly because of grief. His father dies suddenly and her mother falls suddenly ill; this shared experience of grief, a subject I will return to, essentially brings them together. In the scene where they decide to commit to each other, Clève quotes Auden’s “It’s No Use Raising a Shout,” a poem both about the futility of love and the futility of resisting it. Auden wrote, “A bird used to visit this shore: /  It isn’t going to come anymore. / I’ve come a long way to prove / No land, no water, and no love. / Here am I, here are you: / But what does it mean? / What are we going to do?” Auden repeats the refrain, “What are we going to do?” and asserts that there’s no use fighting (“It’s no use raising a shout. / No, Honey, you can cut that right out.”). There’s also no use running away (“Put the car away; when life fails, / What’s the good of going to Wales?”). Now that the two lovers have come together, despite their anxiety, they must come to a decision together.

The moment Clélia seems to realize she loves Clève — and she does love him, even if it’s not the same passion she feels for Némo — is when they are lying in bed after their first night living together. He is asleep beside her and she reads Auden’s “This Lunar Beauty” from one of Clève’s books. She reads, “This lunar beauty / Has no history / Is complete and early, / If beauty later / Bear any feature / It had a lover / And is another. // This like a dream / Keeps other time / And daytime is / The loss of this, / For time is inches / And the heart’s changes / Where ghost has haunted / Lost and wanted.” There is a sense that Clélia begins to understand her mother’s preference for a love born of duty and responsibility rather than passion, but their marriage begins to unravel partly because of her interpretation of her duty to her husband.

She admits to him that she has feelings for another man, but seems to view this disclosure as an act of honesty that is essential to their romantic intimacy. She tells him, “Have pity on me, love me. I need you so.” This evokes a similar scene in Zuławski’s much earlier L’important c’est d’aimer, where a wife begs her husband for emotional and physical intimacy to ward against the feelings she is developing for another man. Clélia wants to talk to him about the fact that she has doubts, asserting she has done nothing wrong, and says, “I’m your wife and I’m a little lost.” Here Clève introduces the concept that infidelity is the end of love, of marriage (clearly he wasn’t reading Auden that closely). Before finally leaving her, he writes the concluding stanza to one of the poems in Auden’s “Twelve Songs” on their bathroom mirror: What hidden worm of guilt / Or what malignant doubt / Am I the victim of, / That you then, unabashed, / Did what I never wished, / Confessed another love; / And I, submissive, felt / Unwanted and went out.”

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I find this troubling because I think it implies that his love for her is inherently selfish. Whether this is a comment on men in general or possibly even on himself, Zuławski often gives his male lovers leave to act more childishly and selfishly than their female counterparts. In general it is the women who are expected to be resilient and adaptable in his films. In everything from The Third Part of the Night and L’important c’est d’aimer to Possession, Le femme publique, and later films like Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, La note bleue, and Szamanka, Zuławski’s male characters are subject to tantrums, bouts of jealousy that often result in physical violence, and an assumption that while they can have occasional affairs, their female partners doing so results in utter chaos and disorder. In “In Sickness and in Health,” Auden warns: “Let no one say I Love until aware / What huge resources it will take to nurse / One ruining speck, one tiny hair / That casts a shadow through the universe // Beloved, we are always in the wrong, / Handling so clumsily our stupid lives, / Suffering too little or too long, / Too careful even in our selfish loves.”

Like the female protagonists of Possession, La femme publique, L’amour braque, Mes nuits sont plus belle que vos jours, Szamanka, and even Cosmos, Clélia is enigmatic, isolated from the rest of the world. She says, “I’m not like everyone,” and even though she’s Zuławski’s most conventionally developed and rounded female character, she still stands alone. She uses sexual intimacy as a replacement for lasting emotional connections. She relates to the world through her work — and perhaps this is the reason I relate to her more than any of Zuławski’s other characters — and even describes her latest book, which she is being interviewed about early in the film, as an “album of absence.” The interviewer asks why the work is so “cold, impersonal,” and remarks that the photographs are full of “empty streets, deserted landscapes… when people do figure, we never see them clearly.”

When she becomes uncomfortable in personal or social situations, she snaps pictures compulsively. In one of the film’s few scenes that could be described as hysterical, she has what seems to be an anxiety attack and runs through the house crying and taking pictures of nothing in particular. Her work does develop throughout the course of the film as her emotional life changes in so many fundamental ways. The out of focus images of bodies in motion gradually become still, focused, and when she and Clève separate, she does a series of portraits of strangers, bringing the camera quite close to their faces. Images of hands are also of vital importance to her work and the film has numerous shots of still photographs of hands, Clélia in the act of photographing hands, and people touching or holding hands. I think I’m hyper conscious of people’s hands touching because it makes me uncomfortable, but here it seems to be a symbol for intimacy, tenderness, and even vulnerability — themes that would reappear in Cosmos.

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In Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography — itself doubling as an exploration of photography and a eulogy to his recently deceased mother — he writes of this paradox between the image in a photograph and what the image represents, an element critical to Clélia’s work, particularly her photographs of bodies. “By nature, the Photograph… has something tautological about it: a pipe, here, is always and intractably a pipe. It is as if the Photograph always carries its referent with itself, both affected by the same amorous or funereal immobility, at the very heart of the moving world: they are glued together, limb by limb, like the condemned man and the corpse in certain tortures; or even like those pairs of fish (sharks, I think, according to Michelet) which navigate in convoy, as though united by an eternal coitus. The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities we can conceive but not perceive” (5-6).

This tension between the representation of an actual person in photographic form and the symbolic image of a body is further linked to the film’s themes of the living and the dead. Likely thinking of his own absent mother, Barthes wrote of “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead” (9). Unlike any of Zuławski’s other films, with the possible exception of the somewhat similar use of doubles in The Third Part of the Night or the reliance on traumatic memory and flashbacks in Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, La fidélité is unique among Zuławski’s films in that it depicts ghosts: namely Clélia’s father, who can first be heard or seen as a silhouette, but who later appears in corporeal form alongside her dead mother. Zuławski’s softens the novel’s somewhat grim conclusion by allowing Clève’s ghost to make an appearance in the last scene of the film, where Clélia is finally able to ask for love and forgiveness.

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There is this sense in La Princesse du Clèves, and by extension La fidélité, that the protagonist has doomed herself because she attempts to choose duty, but cannot abandon love. I’ve always found this element of the novel to be particularly frustrating, but I think Zuławski’s expands upon this concept by making much of the film about coping with grief — both in terms of the absence of a partner and the loss of a parent. He draws a parallel between romantic love and familial, effectively showing the similarity between the deep bonds than can so nurture and wound us, the relationships that are simply foundational to our identity. He seems to be saying that even if a love is lost to us, it will never truly leave us, like the ghosts that appear throughout the film. And for better or worse, I think La fidélité is impossible to truly appreciate unless you’ve experienced a similarly impacting loss yourself, one that makes you realize how little even distance or time can change the roots of genuine love. For Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress, Auden wrote, “Love cannot falter, / Cannot desert; / Though it be shunned / Or be forgotten, / Though it be hurt / If love be love / It will not alter.”

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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