In Andrzej Żuławski’s unusual career full of cinematic outliers and revolutionary masterpieces, there is nothing quite like his lone opera adaptation, Boris Godounov (1989). Admittedly, that’s really saying something. Though it’s perhaps surprising that someone who explored the horror and crime genres with as much enthusiasm as he did frenzied romances would also delve into a classical form, but it shouldn’t come as a shock that he would eventually turn to opera. The director was a lifelong theatergoer and music fan; he adapts scenes from Hamlet, Richard III, and Chekhov’s The Seagull in The Devil (1972), L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), and L’amour braque (1985), respectively, and his distinctive use of music, often in collaboration with the composer Andrzej Korzynski, is one of the most singular features of his films.

If you’re not an opera or classical music aficionado, Boris Godounov (1873) is the sole completed opera from Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, generally remembered for his tone poem about a witches’ sabbath, “Night on Bald Mountain.” Mussorgsky based his opera — one of the most staged Russian works in history — on Pushkin’s play of the same name, itself inspired by the life of the Russian tsar, Boris Godounov, who ruled from 1585 to 1598. He’s notable for two reasons: first, he was chamberlain under Ivan the Terrible and is the only tsar to serve between Ivan’s dynasty, the Ruriks, and the final dynasty, the Romanovs; secondly, Godounov’s reign occurred during the corresponding Time of the Troubles and his fate is largely bound up with the political chaos and turmoil that accompanied this period.

Godounov effectively became tsar because he was regent for Ivan’s young son, Dmitriy Ivanovich, and when the boy died — under suspicious circumstances — the assembly nominated him to step into the position of tsar. His rule was plagued by rumors that he murdered the Tsarevich, a widespread famine, and the emergence of a pretender to the throne. One Grigory Otrepyev claimed he was actually Dmitriy Ivanovich and announced in Poland that he would strive to regain the throne with the help of the Polish aristocracy. Otrepyev came to be known as the False Dmitriy and, though he did make progress with his campaign after Godounov’s death, he was eventually executed — a similar fate befell False Dmitriy II and False Dmitriy III. I wish I was making this up. 

Though Boris Godounov has been altered or “corrected” over the years by well-intentioned (but perhaps misguided) composers like Shostakovich, Żuławski chose to use the original score, with some cuts to allow for a more reasonable running time just shy of two hours. The plot follows the opera (and historical events) quite closely. A reluctant Boris Godounov (Ruggero Raimondi) is coerced into becoming tsar by the enthusiasm of his people, though he seems wracked with guilt over visions of a dead child, something exploited by the Prince Shuyskiy (Kenneth Riegel). Meanwhile, an novice monk (the wonderful Pavel Slaby, who would return for Żuławski’s La note bleue), has a prophetic dream that inspires him to pose as Dmitriy and demand the throne from Godounov. This path takes him on a number of unexpected adventures, including betrothal to a demanding princess (Delphine Forest), as he prepares to march on Russia with the aid of Polish nobles.

Though Pushkin’s drama was inspired by Henry IV, Mussorgsky’s opera — and particularly Żuławski’s film — reminds me far more of Macbeth, and I couldn’t help but think of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) during certain moments of this production, or even of Polanski’s grief and guilt-soaked Macbeth (1971). There are certain parallels between the two works, namely in the fact that both protagonists are isolated, almost depressed figures wracked by guilt and psychologically tormented by their acts. Both have risen above their stations, at least politically speaking, and while it is clear that Macbeth murdered a king to become one, Boris Godounov implies that the regent murdered a child to ascend the throne. There are also supernatural elements in both: in place of Macbeth’s three witches and macabre imagery, Godounov is visited by the ghost of a child, there are brightly-colored scenes of figures oozing red (and blue) blood, and there’s a blind, white-eyed beggar (Romuald Tesarowicz) who foretells Godounov’s doomed future.

But anyone concerned that Żuławski has abandoned his distinctive personal style in favor of a restrained or traditional take on opera or theater needs a reality check: despite the fact that it’s a full opera production and is probably the director’s most faithful adaptation of any text, Boris Godounov is every bit a spectacle of excess, absurdism, and hysteria as two of his most ambitious, challenging films, The Devil and On the Silver Globe (1988). In addition to violence, unexpected humor, and plenty of surreal moments, there’s a surprising amount of sex and nudity — something not really embraced by mainstream opera until the last two decades (an early example includes the New York City Opera’s 1998 production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, in which case the dancers and not principal singers were nude) — and Żuławski opens and closes the film by brazenly shattering the fourth wall.

Of course, he is not the first director who fits loosely under the arthouse umbrella to attempt adapting an opera to film. British filmmaking team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (though the latter was Hungarian, their production company, the Archers, was based in the UK) revolutionized this process with a series of films that explored everything from ballet to opera, though primarily the latter: The Red Shoes (1948), a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale; Tales of Hoffmann (1951), an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera of the same name, itself inspired by the collected stories of German fantasy/horror writer E.T.A. Hoffmann; Oh… Rosalinda!! (1955), an adaptation of Johann Strauss’s opera Die Fledermaus set in occupied postwar Vienna; and Powell’s solo directorial effort, Herzog Blaubarts Burg (1963) aka Bluebeard’s Castle, an adaptation of Béla Bartok’s opera about a nobleman who murders his wives.

Powell and Pressburger’s frenzied explosions of color and style, frequently unrestrained use of emotion, and dizzying technical artistry could be interpreted as an obvious precursor to Żuławski’s films. It would certainly not be a leap to make a connection between something like The Red Shoes and Żuławski’s work, as the former focuses on characters who are passionate artists and features a doomed romance, a love triangle, and a violent ending – as well as literary source material – all themes that can be found throughout Żuławski’s career. In addition, Powell and Pressburger’s operas avoid the more mainstream, popularly adapted works of composers like Mozart and Verdi in favor of fantastique-influenced tales that often flirt with the horror genre – not unlike Żuławski himself.

While cinematic opera adaptations certainly took off after Powell and Pressburger’s handful of groundbreaking films made through the early ‘60s, they tended to split into two branches. The first, which has little in common with Żuławski’s Boris Godounov, are high budget, large scale productions that follow mainstream cinema conventions and put an emphasis on lush style and melodrama: examples include Franco Zeffirelli’s films like La Boheme (1965), Cavalleria Rusticana (1982), La Traviata (1983), Pagliacci (1984), and Otello (1986); the opera adaptations of Czech director Petr Weigel; or even Joseph Losey’s masterpiece, Don Giovanni (1979). On the other hand, there are directors who explored more unusual themes like Powell and Pressburger themselves, such as Ingmar Bergman with The Magic Flute (1975), Żuławski, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg with Parsifal (1982) – possibly the most avant garde cinematic interpretation of Wagner – and even Ken Russell’s numerous cinematic biographies of musicians.

A big part of what makes Żuławski’s approach with Boris Godounov so unique is that he blends something traditionally viewed as “High Art” (opera) with unconventional explorations of the baser impulses. I’ve already mentioned his use of sex and nudity within the film – achieved by replacing opera singers with dubbed-over actors when the singers declined to do nudity themselves – though it’s worth noting that Żuławski quite whimsically expands this far beyond conventional sex scenes. For example, during one of my favorite moments, a character carries a large, wooden staff that appears to have a carved phallus at the top. Because, why not?

Food, in particular, plays an unusual role in Boris Godounov and provides an important contrast to the opera’s political themes, its use of tragedy, and Godounov’s own weighty sense of isolation and depression. The presence of giant, boulder-like cabbages are a key example of how Żuławski used ornate set pieces interspersed with obviously artificial flourishes add to the film’s sense of the surreal (in terms of non-culinary elements, keep an eye out for people being whipped and lying in coffins for no apparent reason). And let’s not forget the romantic aria between the Fake Dmitriy and his beloved that involves headdresses made of produce. My favorite scene — which is actually repeated almost identically in La note bleue by Pavel Slaby — involves a monk standing in a basin, smashing cabbage with his feet, presumably preparing it for sauerkraut or some sort of fermented cabbage dish; but it vividly dyes his feet and lower legs bright green for no apparent reason.

Another scene repeated in both Boris Godounov and La note bleue is a moment where mashed potatoes are smeared onto a character’s face — Żuławski must have been having a rough time with both cabbage and potatoes from 1989 to 1991 — a wonderfully evocative gesture that is absurd, humorous, and strangely emotional. It’s an act of revolt and rebellion, as well as a curiously humanizing expression. In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin wrote of the early, literary use of grotesque themes: “It is usually pointed out that in Rabelais’ work the material bodily principle, that is, images of the human body with its food, drink, defecation, and sexual life, plays a prominent role…. Similar traits were also found to a lesser degree in other representatives of Renaissance literature, in Boccaccio, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, and were interpreted as a ‘rehabilitation of the flesh’” (18). Żuławski reinterprets and rehabilitates human bodies in a similar way throughout his films, but particular in Boris Godounov, where the contrast between classical tragedy and earthly folk culture is most apparent.

This “culture of folk humor” that Bakhtin describes as grotesque realism is something that is a catholic way of uniting all bodies, either elevating or debasing them to the same level; but it is generally a deeply positive and joyous act, one rich with humor and warmth. Bakhtin wrote, “the body and bodily life here have a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character… the material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable” (19).

Żuławski use of bodies also expresses these themes; not just through his depictions of flesh as “grandiose” and “exaggerated” — think of how he portrays his often strangely distorted or literally towering female protagonists like Isabelle Adjani in Possession or Valerie Kaprisky in La femme publique — but through his use of bodies engaging in the most basic of human biological transactions: at rest, in (generally frantic) motion, procreating, and feeding. His characters are some of the most complex in European cinema, thanks to his refusal to embrace anything resembling a black and white moral scale, and he paints them from a palette made up of numerous hues. As is frequently found in Boris Godounov, seemingly contrasted elements are combined. In many of Żuławski’s films, he achieves this by contrasting scenes of violence, emotion, and even melodrama with rituals of eating and drinking.

In one of his earliest short films, Pavoncello, the female protagonist reveals her inner turmoil by smashing a glass of champagne at a party, while another early short, The Story of Triumphant Love, centers around a tense dinner where long separated characters are reunited. The glass smashing and uncomfortable dinner scene (both featuring love triangles) are repeated during L’important c’est d’aimer, while Possession includes several such moments. The central married couple have an explosive fight in a restaurant, where the husband lashes out and is somewhat comically subdued by seemingly the whole restaurant staff, and some of their bleakest fights take place in the family kitchen. For example, while grinding meat, the wife suddenly mutilates herself. The restaurant scene from Possession is repeated almost identically in Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, though it is at the beginning, rather than the end, of a relationship, and includes some acrobatic wordplay over the dinner menu.

In particular, food and restaurants are a major component of the director’s final five films: Boris Godounov, La note bleue, Szamanka, La fidélité, and Cosmos. In La note bleue, much of which takes place in a cavernous family kitchen during scenes of food preparation, it is often used to underline the complicated, but affectionate and familial bonds between characters. In Szamanka, it is frequently symbolic of the heroine’s wild, uncivilized impulses — and feeding takes on a more symbolic meaning than in any of his other films during its conclusion, which features cannibalism. Many of La fidélité’s key scenes occur during domestic rituals with more than a few celebratory dinners highlighting engagements, marriages, and other forms of romantic bonding. Nearly half of Cosmos is set at a family dinner table and the way characters interact with food, utensils, and even the table itself becomes a way of revealing their inner mysteries, regardless of how ridiculous and even surreal these scenes may seem at the surface level.

Boris Godounov similarly uses food to provide humor and notes of the absurd, to underline that nothing, not even serious subject matter (political unrest, the murder of children, potential civil war), is ever truly polarized. Żuławski is a master at showing the complicated, often frustrating range of human experience, combining bitterness and sweetness, violence and tenderness, and even tragedy and whimsy. This skill is honed to its sharpest point in Boris Godounov: he not only dazzles from a technical standpoint, but takes a classical work and makes it thoroughly his own. Though I wouldn’t describe it as necessarily one of his more accessible films, strangers to opera will likely find it a wonderful introduction to a world that is rich, strange, and often deeply fulfilling, despite its seemingly unfathomable, baroque origins — something Żuławski himself obviously understood and celebrated.