After the reception of The Devil (1972) drove director Andrzej Zuławski out of Poland and into France, he didn’t make another feature film for three years, apparently filling his days in Paris with work as a writer. And though he spent a significant amount of time in the country as a student, his first French feature, L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), feels more like a generally European film and less specifically like a French one. Perhaps this is due to the melting pot of cast and crew members, namely the involvement of Austrian arthouse star Romy Schneider, Italian action and crime film star Fabio Testi, the incomparable Klaus Kinski in one of his greatest performances, and Zuławski’s genius camera operator (and frequent cinematographer) Andrzej Jaroszewicz. Perhaps this — along with the film’s central themes of love and longing — is also due to the fact that L’important c’est d’aimer was made by an exile, a man separated from his wife and young child.
While I don’t necessarily think it’s his most accomplished work from a technical perspective, against the odds L’important c’est d’aimer — which is generally translated as The Most Important Thing: Love or The Most Important Thing is to Love — seems to be my favorite of all Zuławski’s films. I say against the odds because by all rights my favorite should be The Third Part of the Night (1971), an absurdist horror drama set during the apocalyptic Nazi occupation of Poland. (To be fair, that’s my second favorite, and you can read my worshipful essay on it here.)
In many ways, L’important c’est d’aimer is the complete opposite of The Third Part of the Night: Zuławski’s first film with a contemporary setting, at its heart it’s a melodrama. And unlike the majority of his films, it has a straightforward narrative. It’s arguably the most accessible film of the first 20 years of his career as a filmmaker, a definite outlier up until maybe 1991’s La note bleue (another of my favorites, of course).
Loosely based on Christopher Frank’s novel La nuit américaine (renamed to avoid being confused with Truffaut’s La nuit américaine from 1973), the film follows the seemingly ill-fated relationship between a photographer, Servais (Testi), and a down on her luck actress, Nadine (Schneider). Though she longs for a legitimate acting career, she is forced to support herself by appearing in cheap sexploitation films because her immature husband, Jacques (French pop star Jacques Dutronc), spends all his time and money collecting photographs of famous actresses. Servais, who occasionally works as a photographer on porn shoots for a lower-level gangster, borrows money from his employer to partially bankroll an avant garde production of Richard III, with the guarantee that Nadine will be cast in the lead female role. Tensions between Servais, Nadine, and Jacques soon come to a head, setting in motion tragic events.
Among cult film circles — whether we’re talking arthouse, exploitation, or horror films — “melodrama” often feels like a dirty word and has essentially become a pejorative describing a work as shallow or frivolous. But in Thomas Elsaesser’s seminal essay, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” he argues that melodrama possesses a “radical ambiguity” and the ability to be powerfully subversive. My background is actually in theater history (due to a perhaps ill-advised obsession with both Georg Büchner and August Strindberg) and I’d love to launch into a discussion of the origins of melodrama in the 18th and 19th centuries, all the way from The Beggar’s Opera (1728) to The Bells (1871), but suffice it to say that Merriam Webster defines melodrama as “drama in which many exciting events happen and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions.” Additionally, whether we’re talking about film, drama, or literature, these two constants are joined by a tendency towards somewhat unbelievable coincidence in terms of plot and a sense of strongly polarized morals.
Zuławski was never one for black and white views of morality, preferring a level of greyscale that I think is what makes him so uncomfortable for so many viewers and thus so overlooked. Like many of the films of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, arguably the greatest melodramatist of his generation, L’important c’est d’aimer’s chief strength lies in the fact that it is at once an exceptional work of melodrama — for instance, the heart-wrenching score from prolific French composer George Delerue is the only thing in existence that can make me cry on command — and also a masterful subversion of the genre. The film’s primary romantic act is a suicide and there is a certain irony to the fact that its central romantic relationship is never consummated, despite the fact that both members of the couple work in pornography and there is frequent sex and nudity throughout the film.
Elsaesser writes that, “what is typical of this form of melodrama is that the characters’ behavior is often pathetically at variance with the real objectives they want to achieve. A sequence of substitute actions creates a kind of vicious circle in which the close nexus of cause and effect is somehow broken and-in an often overtly Freudian sense-displaced” (79). This sentiment particularly applies to Nadine, who is trapped between an unfulfilling marriage and a disappointing career, neither allowing her to escape from the other. Schneider, whose performance revitalized her career and won her the inaugural César for Best Actress, looks truly exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown. Nadine’s husband, so obsessed with starlets, prefers the fantasy presented by his posters and film stills to living with a real actress and is unable to provide her with emotional, sexual, or financial support.
This stalemate is broken by the appearance of Servais in one of Zuławski’s many great “love at first sight” scenes, where a character is instantly transformed by the simple act of viewing a second character, a moment that will permanently alter the course of events. In his essay “The Sacred Conspiracy,” Georges Bataille wrote, “Life has always taken place in a tumult without apparent cohesion, but it only finds its grandeur and its reality in ecstasy and in ecstatic love” (Visions of Excess, 179). Ecstasy in this case does not merely mean a sense of euphoria or bliss, but is akin to a religious or mystical experience, one in which the subject enters a trancelike state and the self is, even temporarily, transcended.
If Zuławski’s films have any sort of consistent moral message, it seems to be that people are unhappy, but they don’t deserve to be — something he says almost verbatim in the commentary for Possession — and his plots often loosely follow a metaphorical ascent from the underworld. While some of his later films show characters escaping this misery and attempting to transform themselves through art — cinema in La femme publique, writing and music in La note bleue, photography in La fidélité, and so on — love seems to be the purest, though most painful, means to complete this alchemical process.
In the case of the melodramatic, or even conventional, hero, Servais is a curious, subversive example. Elsaesser explains that, “one of the typical features of the classical Hollywood movie has been that the hero was defined dynamically, as the centre of a continuous movement” (80). Servais, on the other hand, is almost pathologically passive for such a stereotypically macho male lead, a part for which Fabio Testi was perfectly cast, despite the unlikeliness of him starring in an arthouse melodrama. He is a pornographer (if perhaps reluctantly) and something of a lothario, but is unwilling to or incapable of pursuing a loveless sexual relationship with Nadine.
As a photographer, he records life rather than encountering it directly (much like the lead character of Zuławski’s later La fidélité), and spends much of the film spectating the action from empty theater seats, inspiring Nadine to call him the “Phantom.” Pygmalion-type relationships exist frequently in Zuławski’s films and though Servais encourages Nadine in her career — seemingly more than anyone else ever has — he resists forming this type of bond, generally remaining a mute witness rather than a motivational force. His intervention in her life is actually one of the ways in which the book and film differ. In Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin’s Shakespeare on Screen, she writes, “In the book, he himself writes the script; in the film, he agrees to bankroll Laurent Messala’s production of Richard III because he will cast Nadine as Lady Anne, ‘one of the best female roles ever” (81). This primarily financial participation is connected with one of the film’s main themes of moral and artistic prostitution.
While all the characters prostitute themselves to varying degrees, Servais seems to genuinely want nothing in exchange from Nadine. He effectively ends the film in a parallel to his opening scene where he first snuck onto the softcore set to photograph Nadine, had to bribe a member of the crew, and was beaten for his troubles. At the end of the film he is effectively bankrupted by financing Richard III for her and – in a traditionally melodramatic coincidence – is badly beaten by his former mob associates. Though by all rights they should have killed him, he is left alive, bleeding and crying on the floor.
There is something fundamentally childlike and naive about both Servais and Nadine, which heightens the contrast between innocent romantic love and sexual exploitation that is at the core of the film. Nadine’s real drive is not just a struggle to find a fulfilling love, but an almost existential struggle to comprehend love itself. At one point she breaks down in a café, smashing a glass (one of Zuławski’s often used visual tropes), and telling Jacques that “I love you means nothing.” Out of all the characters of L’important c’est d’aimer, her personal journey is perhaps the most profound, and, unlikely the majority of Zuławski’s heroines, she is even given a completely unexpected happy ending.
As with Servais, her actions in the opening and closing scenes have a direct parallel to each other. In the beginning of the film, Servais encounters her on a film set, in the middle of a scene where she is straddling a bleeding man. She is commanded to deliver her dialogue, “I love you,” but cannot bring herself to convincingly do so and begins to cry when Servais’ takes her picture. By the end of the film, she is leaning over a bloody, beaten Servais and is able to say, without hesitation and with much genuine depth of meaning, “I love you.”
A major change that Zuławski made from Christopher Frank’s novel is actually the role of Jacques, her husband, and the weight of the love triangle, Zuławski’s favorite dramatic structure. While Jacques is barely present in the novel, he has a greatly elevated importance here and the dynamic between photographer, model/actress, and cinephile/photograph collector is an elegant one that places a nearly equal emphasis on the twin themes of art and love. Of course, they are not trafficking in the “high” art of La femme publique or La note bleue, or the commercial world of La fidélité. In a sense, L’important c’est d’aimer is so subversive because it inserts the trappings of a conventional, bourgeois melodrama into the squalid world of pornography.
It’s likely that Zuławski was slyly commenting on some of the changes in French cinema during this period. The recently relaxed censorship laws allowed filmmakers to include increased amounts of nudity and softcore sex, resulting in titles like Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (1974) and Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle (1974) and The Story of O (1975). These ushered in dozens of imitators that veered further and further from arthouse sensibilities and closer to low budget pornography. One of the film’s most shocking, unexpected moments actually occurs when Servais leaves the exploitation set where he first spies Nadine, and finds his way to a hardcore porn shoot, where it is revealed that he is actually late for work. Later, some of Nadine’s films are discussed – the titled bandied about the most is Nymphocula – and Nadine’s soon-to-be costar on Richard III (Kinski) enthusiastically recognizes the title and describes the plot as, “Two dykes in a castle with a dwarf!” He asserts that Nadine is “great” in the film.
Zuławski – who himself featured a liveried, Jew’s harp-playing dwarf in The Devil – seems less to be taking a pot shot at exploitation cinema and more the cult of obsession and fascination that surrounds actresses in general. He makes no distinction between Nymphocula and the exploitative power of mainstream cinema as represented by Jacques’ picture collection and his slavish devotion to fantasy over reality. This jab at the cult of the actress is almost ironic – and is perhaps a bit tongue in cheek – considering that Zuławski’s prowess as a director is largely bound up in his relationships with lead actresses, causing several of them to win major European filmmaking awards.
The hysterical, liberating, and almost physically unbelievable performances he wrenched from many of his lead actresses – such as his first wife Małgorzata Braunek, Isabelle Adjani, Valerie Kaprisky, longtime partner Sophie Marceau, and Iwona Petry – is perhaps more subtly expressed by Schneider, though she is no less impactful. In interviews, Zuławski occasionally spoke about how he convinced actresses to physically transform themselves, to shed conventional notions of beauty in favor of raw emotion that often made them appear ugly: Braunek’s horrible contortions, Adjani’s ecstatic vomiting, and Marceau’s snotty, swollen, and tear-streaked face. While Schneider escaped many of these physical injustices, he convinced her to abandon the thick layers of makeup that she felt preserved her youthful appearance (she was in her mid-‘30s during filming, though Nadine claims to be 30). In some sense, Nadine is ugly and despicable because she is so helpless, utterly adrift in a world where she is unable to either find a solid mooring or take responsibility for herself.
This provides a tangible link with her character in Richard III, Lady Anne. Historically, Anne is one of England’s more ignored queens, given shockingly little agency compared to women like Margaret of Anjou or Elizabeth Woodville. In Richard III, Anne is seduced by Richard over a corpse; not that of her husband, as is widely misunderstood, but over her father-in-law, though her husband is also recently dead. Despite being physically deformed, Richard undertakes a seduction of Anne defined by mannered speech, as he is a brilliant orator, and surprising sexual excess in Act 1, Scene 2. He says beautiful things to her, such as “Your beauty, that did haunt me in my sleep/ To undertake the death of all the world,/ So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.” For Richard, this seduction is essentially another social mask — a favorite theme of Zuławski’s — one that allows him to exceed his vision of himself as “deformed, unfinished.”
While there are notable parallels between L’important c’est d’aimer and Richard III, Servais’s seduction of Nadine could not be more different than Richard’s seduction of Anne. Instead of providing a parallel between the two male leads, Zuławski uses the theatrical production — and the play that it so flamboyantly adapts, with a performance from Kinski that must be seen to be believed — as an important contrast. The use of theater that began in The Devil with Hamlet would figure strongly into all Zuławski’s films for at least the next decade.
Here Richard III seems primarily to function as a way to foreshadow the death of a husband and the subsequent seduction of his wife. Jacques’ ultimate sacrifice — a romantic act of suicide, rather than murder as in Shakespeare — is referenced several times before it actually occurs. Upon meeting Servais for the first time, Jacques mutters into Nadine’s ear, “I dreamt you were pouring Coca Cola in my ear. A nasty death!” This Hamlet reference indicates not only his impending death by poison, but also the central love triangle, as, like Richard III, Hamlet features a subplot about a man killing another man and then seducing his widow. During rehearsals for Richard III, the director of the play, Messala (Guy Mairesse), is unable to get the performance he wants out of Nadine and convinces Jacques, who happens to be on set, to lay in the coffin in the hope that it will inspire her.
Jacques’ actual death — agonizingly painful suicide by rat poison in a public bathroom — is not an act of violence or tragedy, but one of intense love. Suicide is a recurring theme in Zuławski’s films and it is often represented as a pathway to liberation. In this case, Jacques frees Nadine from self-imposed but steadfast bonds. In Bataille’s Guilty, he wrote, “Eroticism is the brink of the abyss. I’m leaning out over deranged horror (at this point my eyes roll back in my head). The abyss is the foundation of the possible. We’re brought to the edge of the same abyss by uncontrolled laughter or ecstasy. From this comes a ‘questioning’ of everything possible. This is the stage of rupture, of letting go of things, of looking forward to death” (109). L’important c’est d’aimer concludes with this great letting go, perhaps an unconventional but unequivocally happy ending, one that would not see its like in any of Zuławski’s film until Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989), his love letter to Sophie Marceau that ends with the suicide of a couple.