Mark: “For me, God is a disease.”

Heinrich: “That’s why, through disease, we can reach God.”

Possession (1981)



Early this morning, the great Polish director Andrzej Żuławski passed away at the age of 75 after battling with cancer, like several other artistic greats this year. Here are some personal remembrances of his highly original, unforgettable career.

It was until relatively later in my life — at least compared to when I first began obsessively watching cult movies — that I discovered Andrzej Żuławski. Almost exactly ten years ago, I was 22 years old, had just dropped out of grad school, and moved to Philadelphia. After years of hearing about it, I finally went to the now defunct but much beloved TLA Video and rented Possession. Except I didn’t realize that Żuławski’s Possession wasn’t yet available on DVD and what they gave me was Neil LaBute’s absolutely banal romantic melodrama of the same name starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. I film that Żuławski, had he seen it, would likely have hated it as much as I did. It is, in every way, the complete opposite of Żuławski’s perfect film of the same name.

When I was finally able to track down the proper Possession a few weeks later, my expectations — unreasonably high at that point — were completely exceeded. A lot of horror genre fans are drawn to the film because, like much of Cronenberg’s output, it seems to be an uncomfortable, almost incomprehensible work of body horror. In the midst of marital disintegration, mutilation, and hysteria, a woman (Isabelle Adjani in one of her best performances) births a Lovecraftian cephalopod creature in a squalid Berlin apartment just a stone’s throw from the Wall, while her estranged husband (Sam Neill, also at his best) attempts to patch together their relationship. Sort of. But like another great director of his generation, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Żuławski was never beholden to genre and always shaped it to his own needs, weaving in historical, literary, artistic, and (less frequently) cinematic references.

Isabelle Adjani in Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (1981)

Isabelle Adjani in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981)

And while Possession has stayed with me since the day it finally came into my life, in a variety of unexpected forms, I don’t think cinema fans should consider it to be Żuławski’s ultimate film, but rather a gateway into his catalog. It contains what I believe are the four cornerstones of his work: characters defined by hysteria and excess, a central plot that involves doomed or painful love, an abstruse political allegory, and a restless if immaculate sense of visual style.

Regardless of genre — horror (Possession), science fiction (On the Silver Globe), war-time period piece (The Third Part of the Night, The Devil), crime film (L’amour braque), romance (L’important c’est d’aimer), and more — the way into Żuławski’s films is often through love and passion. Regardless of the surrounding plot, there is often a tortured central relationship — generally a woman who must chose between two men — that swerves rapidly between the extremes of romantic passion and abject cruelty. Love, in Żuławski’s films, is all consuming, an irrational but inevitable force that is inexplicable and totally unavoidable.

on a silver globe 1988

On a Silver Globe (1988)

My favorite of his films, to my constant surprise, is L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), his first feature film made in France — after leaving communist Poland — and the work that immediately precedes Possession. A struggling photographer (Italian crime film sensation Fabio Testi) has a chance meeting with a failed actress (Euro-art house goddess Romy Schneider) on the set of a porno film and falls in love with her. He secretly funds a production of Richard III (costarring Klaus Kinski, no less) to get close to her, but he realizes that her pathetic husband (French pop singer Jacques Dutronc) is the only thing keeping them apart. This is Żuławski at his most sweeping and melodramatic — partly thanks to a sob-inducing score from Georges Delerue — this beautiful, brittle film follows the relationship between art and pornography, love and possession, and fantasy and reality.

And though it is largely concerned with a tragic romance, even L’important c’est d’aimer includes a subtle political subtext, something that would wind its way through all Żuławski’s films. Whether he was discussing the effects of WWII (The Third Part of the Night), communist Poland (The Devil, On the Silver Globe), or contemporary Poland (Szamanka). And it is maybe this ability to weave together so many disparate threads that makes Żuławski such a giant of 19th and 20th century cinema.

L’important C’est D’aimer (1975)

L’important C’est D’aimer (1975)

His loss is a profound one, though I can’t help but feel more like celebrating his work rather than lamenting his absence. If you’re a stranger to his work, or are only familiar with Possession, there’s no time like the present to explore his catalog. He’s capable of a depth of feeling nearly unparalleled by any director of his generation, as well as plenty of warmth and humor amidst the chaos and hysteria. I highly recommend picking up some of his films from Mondo Vision (or Kino Lorber or Arrow later this year) and not shying away from the special features, particularly the thoughtful commentary tracks he provided for a number of his films. I listen to these embarrassingly frequently and they stand as a testament to the fact that he had an exacting, brilliant mind with an enthusiasm for art, culture, and human life.

For my part, I just happened to spend Valentine’s Day weekend watching L’amour braque (aka Mad Love) and L’important c’est d’aimer (aka The Most Important Thing is Love) and in two days I’m heading to New York for the Lincoln Center’s retrospective of his Polish films, along with the New York premier of his farewell to the cinema, Cosmos.