About a month ago, I began what was supposed to be a short retrospective on the recently restored early Polish films of Andrzej Zuławski – The Third Part of the Night, The Devil, and On the Silver Globe, followed by an essay on his recent, final film, Cosmos – but in light of the director’s recent passing, I realized (and was perhaps persuaded) that I couldn’t stop there, as the majority of his films have received such little critical attention. Therefore, welcome to the continuation of my retrospective on Zuławski’s films. This week I’m going to go all the way back to his early years, specifically his first two works as a director, the roughly 30-minute short films Piesn triumfujacej milosci (1969) aka The Story of Triumphant Love and Pavoncello (1969).
These films were made in the wake of a number of years working as an assistant to Polish director Andrzej Wajda, a role that he held for much of the ‘60s. Zuławski served as assistant director on Samson (1961), where he also had a small acting role, as second unit director on Wajda’s contribution to the anthology film Love at 20 (1962), titled “Warsaw,” and assistant director on The Ashes (1965). It’s also worth noting that he went on to assistant direct Anatole Litvak’s UK-French coproduction, The Night of the Generals (1967), a crime film about the murder of a prostitute set during WWII. While it starred big name actors like Peter O’Toole, Omar Shariff, and Donald Pleasence, the film was shot in Warsaw, which seems a curious choice for the Cold War years.
After putting in his time as an assistant, it was perhaps inevitable that – like so many other fledging arthouse directors – Zuławski would make at least one short film before progressing to feature length works. Both shorts were actually commissioned for Polish television, apparently as part of a series adapting works of classic literature. According to Zuławski scholar Daniel Bird, they were shot in 35mm color, but then broadcast in black and white for television, which explains why they appear to be black and white films (and are even listed as such on IMDB). At first glance, neither The Story of Triumphant Love nor Pavoncello feel particularly like they belong in Zuławski’s distinctive canon, as they exhibit a decidedly more conventional approach to filmmaking. But both films contain a number of the thematic and visual tropes that would reappear throughout his career and deserve to be rediscovered.
The Story of Triumphant Love features Zuławski’s most constant dramatic structure, the love triangle, as it follows the melancholic reunion of three friends. Mucjusz (Piotr Wysocki of Wajda’s The Ashes) travels to the mansion of his old friend, Fabiusz (Andrzej May). There is tension between the two men, because years ago Mucjusz was in love with the beautiful Waleria (Beata Tyszkiewicz, also of The Ashes), who ultimately married Fabiusz. Despite Mucjusz’s claims that he has found love with many women during his international adventures, it is obvious that passion remains between he and Waleria. During a dinner party celebrating Mucjusz’s return, he and his servant Malaj (Jerzy Jogalla) perform “The Song of Love,” a tune that Mucjusz claims can make a lover capable of seemingly impossible feats.
The Story of Triumphant Love is based on a story by 19th century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, which actually bears more in common with the work of Turgenev’s close friend, French writer Gustav Flaubert, to whom it is dedicated. Unusually for Turgenev, it lacks a Russian setting and instead takes place in a fairytale-like interpretation of medieval Italy, complete with elements of Gothic literature: troubled romance, erotic nightmares, manipulative male characters preying on weak female ones, and hints of the supernatural. Over the years, Zuławski frequently turned to works of literature as the inspiration for his feature films and he remains one of the most accomplished literary adapters in all of cinema, often turning to texts that other directors might consider unapproachable (like Dostoyevsky’s Demons or Gombrowicz’s Cosmos).
His adaptation of The Story of Triumphant Love is perhaps surprisingly conventional and even wistfully romantic, compared to his later films. It has more in common with some of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations from the ‘60s and even something like Fellini’s Poe adaptation Toby Dammit, made for the anthology film Histoires extraordinares (1968) aka Spirits of the Dead. Though the cinematography – from The Saragossa Manuscript’s Mieczyslaw Jahoda – was not intentionally black and white, this adds to the Gothic mood, which is also enhanced by one of my favorite pieces of music from Zuławski’s lifelong collaborator, composer Andrzej Korzynski. The central musical theme highlights a reoccurring sequence where Waleria rises from bed, seemingly in a trance, and walks through the moonlit garden to find Mucjusz. Korzynski uses mournful violins and subtle, if unusual percussion, and includes vocals that first sounds like howling wolves but soon transition into a woman singing.
Like Zuławski’s later horror-tinged films such as The Devil (1972) or Possession (1981), The Story of Triumphant Love could not actually be described as a genre film, but includes themes of sleepwalking, nightmares, sudden acts of violence, and inexplicable events. In Turgenev’s story, it is implied that Muzzio (as he is originally known) has not just returned with exotic treasures and enchanting tales, but has actually acquired some sort of mystical or supernatural power and that he is trying to cast a spell on Waleria. Turgenev writes, “Valeria did not quickly fall asleep; there was a faint and languid fever in her blood and a slight ringing in her ears … from that strange wine, as she supposed, and perhaps too from Muzzio’s stories, from his playing on the violin … towards morning she did at last fall asleep, and she had an extraordinary dream.” It is implied that in the dream she is raped by Muzzio and she becomes increasingly disturbed as the story progresses. Later she describes another dream about “a sort of monster which was trying to tear me to pieces.”
The major divergence between Turgenev’s story and Zuławski’s film lies in this issue of romantic intention and sexual consent. While Turgenev describes the attempted supernatural seduction of an unwilling woman, Zuławski’s Waleria appears to want to run away with Mucjusz, despite also loving her husband, but is prevented from doing so because he reveals that he is dying of leprosy. The film concludes with Mucjusz’s “death,” where he manipulates a jealous Fabiusz into fatally stabbing him after Waleria wanders, in yet another trance, to his bedside. But, as Mucjusz promised earlier, “The Song of Love” has unexpected powers and he rises, seemingly changed, to mount his horse and have his servant lead him far from Fabiusz’s country estate.
While Pavoncello, his follow up, has an equally desolate ending as well as other thematic similarities, it is remarkably different in tone. Also set in a romantic, fictionalized Italy – albeit during the turn of the century – Pavoncello follows the fortunes of the titular violinist (Stefan Friedmann of Wajda’s Landscape After Battle), who is fired from his position as musical accompanist at a local cinema when he falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Zinayda (Joanna Kasperska). Taking pity on him, she hires him on the spot to give her violin lessons, though she insists that they must take place that night. To his surprise, he is forced to perform at the dinner party of her wealthy husband (Mieczyslaw Milecki), an important diplomat who is ill and confined to a wheelchair, and who seems displeased with the violinist’s presence.
While The Story of Triumphant Love is quite faithful to its source material, Pavoncello is a bit of a departure from Stefan Zeromski’s short story of the same name. Though he may not be familiar to English-speaking audiences, Zeromski was an important Romantic novelist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His works have been adapted by other Polish directors, namely in Wajda’s Popioły (1965) aka The Ashes and Walerian Borowczyk’s Dzieje grzechu (1975) aka Story of Sin. Pavoncello is a bit more mean-spirited than Zuławski’s films typically are, but he also made the protagonist considerably more down-to-earth than the preening peacock of Zeromski’s tale, who is widely regarded as one of the most handsome men in all of Rome.
Zuławski’s musical protagonist, named Ernesto but nicknamed Pavoncello, is far more of an every-man figure whose main function seems to be struggling with love, linking him with the lead characters of films like The Third Part of the Night, L’important c’est d’aimer, Possession, and La fidélité. The real centerpiece of the film is Joanna Kasperska’s Zinayda, who is arguably the first of Zuławski’s hysterical female characters. Unlike Waleria of The Story of Triumphant Love, who wanders through much of the film as if in a trance, Zinayda is alluring, coquettish, and a force of (ultimately destructive) nature. She’s so moved by Ernesto’s violin music that she smashes a glass on the floor — a trope repeated several times throughout Zuławski’s films — and dances rather inappropriately. She insists that he dance with her, right under her husband’s nose, and then winds up spinning in circles in the middle of a very tightly-laced, upper class party full of disapproving diplomats in tuxedos. She actually forces a number of them to follow behind her in a sort of insane conga line as well laughs hysterically — none of which bodes well for the poor violinist.
The film’s twist is actually quite nasty and — though you could make a possible case for Szamanka or maybe even L’amour braque — this is by far the most mean-spirited of Zuławski’s films. After a melodramatic, “love at first sight” moment (another of Zuławski’s often used scenes), Ernesto falls in love with Zinayda, believing that she feels the same way about him. He sneaks back to the estate to reunite with her and, after claiming that she is a virgin because of her husband’s infirmity, they have sex. Ernesto plans for them to run away together, but then learns that Zinayda’s plan all along has been to get pregnant and thus ensure that she will inherit her husband’s fortune. Zuławski cruelly implies that Ernesto is only one of many men who has been used in the same scheme, though he seems to be taking it particularly badly.
While both of these short films may seem more conventional and melodramatic than Zuławski’s features, they’re important starting off points that give an indication of the themes that he would return to throughout his career. In addition to love triangles, literary source material, hysterical women, and doomed love, also featured is my favorite of all Zuławski’s visual tropes: the use of a winding staircase to establish a frantic sense of motion and often emotional turmoil. Apparently Zuławski was inspired by a similar scene in Wajda’s Pokolenie (1955) aka A Generation, and it’s interesting (though perhaps a bit unfair) to consider just how far outstripped the senior director. Though these two films are not yet available in any home release, you can find both The Story of Triumphant Love and Pavoncello on Youtube with English subtitles, though hopefully that will be rectified sooner rather than later.