Considering the output of the first half of director Andrzej Zuławski’s career, up through the mid-’80s with films like Possession (1981), La femme publique (1984), and L’amour braque (1985), I’m sure at the time no one could have guessed that Zuławski would next deliver a beachside romantic melodrama (Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours), an opera adaptation (Boris Godounov), or, of all things, a restrained, pastoral biography set in nineteenth century France. And yet the latter, La note bleue (1991) aka The Blue Note, based on the failing relationship between Polish composer Frédéric Chopin and French novelist George Sand (née Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), is one of Zuławski’s warmest, most personal films — and certainly one of his most technically beautiful — with possibly the widest emotional range of his entire career.
George Sand’s (Marie-France Pisier) estate in Nohant is awash with visitors — including notables like the painter Delacroix (Féodor Atkine) and the writer Turgenev (Serge Renko) — while her family life is undergoing significant strain. Her daughter, Solange (Sophie Marceau), is engaged, though she seems to be recently in love with Chopin (the utterly sublime Janusz Olejniczak, an actual pianist and renowned Chopin expert), her mother’s partner for nearly a decade. Tensions are brought to a head with fighting between mother and daughter, Chopin’s terminal illness, which makes it increasingly difficult for him to compose music, and the sudden appearance of a young sculptor (Aurélien Recoing), who becomes a rival for Solange’s affections.
While there are several films about the relationship between Sand and Chopin, including Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945) and his Song Without End (1960), as well as later efforts like James Lapine’s Impromptu (1991) or Jerzy Antczak’s Chopin: Desire for Love (2002), La note bleue is the only one to focus on the melancholic if inevitable ending, rather than the improbable beginning, of their decade-long affair. Presumably, the events of La note bleue are set in July of 1846 — historically speaking, this is the time that Chopin’s Polish friends, Grzymała and Countess Czosnowska (here played by Polish actors Roman Wilhelmi and Grazyna Dylong) visited Nohant together — and, unlike many of Zuławski’s films that end in murder, suicide, or even apocalypse, the disintegration of Sand and Chopin’s relationship is as slow and steady on screen as it was in real life. They ended their union in 1847, gradually separating geographically after an emotional rift allegedly caused by Solange.
But while most of Zuławski’s films follow corrosive romantic relationships, La note bleue encompasses so much more than just this theme and, arguably, alongside Possession (inspired by his own divorce), it has the most autobiographical elements of any of the director’s films. Much like the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, whose Cosmos was the source material for Zuławski’s final film of the same name, the director seems to have related to Chopin partly because he was a Polish exile. While Zuławski spent some time growing up in France thanks to his studies and his father’s position as a diplomat, Chopin’s father had a French background, though the composer was raised in Warsaw. He left the country at age 20, just before the November Uprising of 1830, a violent Polish rebellion against Russian occupying forces, which resulted in the brutal obliteration of any signs of Polish independence. Chopin spent almost his entire adult life in France, eventually taking a passport there, though he never considered himself a French citizen and still sometimes struggled with the language.
There is a rich history of artists-in-exile and the experience obviously profoundly shaped many Polish artists from the nineteenth century onwards, of which Chopin, Gombrowicz, and Zuławski are a scant few. As with the latter two, Chopin’s years in exile were likely a major contributing factor to the unique quality of his output, though contemporary fans and scholars tend to attribute a strongly nationalistic bent to his work. In Musical Biography: Towards New Paradigms, Jolanta Pekacz wrote, “It can not be assumed that he [Chopin] was immune to what Paris could offer both culturally and intellectually. Chopin was too open-minded and too attracted to cosmopolitan social life to reject Paris, as did some of his compatriots such as Adam Mickiewicz. Chopin did not distance himself from things French and amalgamated, rather than contrasted, his French and Polish experiences. And while Mickiewicz’s otherness meant strong cultural identity and was identical with his ‘Polishness,’ Chopin’s otherness was much more complex and can not be reduced to one aspect of his personality” (63). Pekacz continued, “It is more likely that Chopin’s exile experience in Paris forced him to reconsider, rather than to reproduce, his ‘Polishness’ as the traditional biography assumes” (65).
While I will return later to the subject of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s perhaps most important national poet, Chopin’s genius cannot be separated from his homelessness anymore than Zuławski himself. Though Chopin’s body was buried in France when he passed away in 1849, his sister Ludwika took his preserved heart back to Poland with her, so that his remains are permanently divided. In La note bleue, Zuławski depicts this division as merely one of a series of integral qualities that separates Chopin and Sand. They were total opposites politically and often culturally, with the socialist, left-wing Sand always ready to buck tradition, while Chopin courted the aristocracy (a necessity for his profession and, one suspects, the stability and comfort of his private life). Of him, Sand wrote, “Anything he considers eccentric scandalizes him” (Jack 284).
A prolific worker, Sand lamented Chopin’s delicate and tormented nature and his tendency to agonize for days or weeks over a particular piece of music, something reflected in La note bleue; there is a particular scene where Sand admits a ferocious impatience for Chopin’s working methods — with perhaps a note of jealousy in her voice, she says, “It’s useless, this suffering” — and says that his compulsive repetition of a few bars of music will drive her mad. The compromise that kept them together for years is in short supply in the film. In George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large, Belinda Jack wrote, “Both worked steadily but followed quite different routines, Chopin retiring early, while Sand worked through the night. His annual pattern had developed a rhythm which Sand had, to some extent, to follow also if she was to be with him. The winters he reserved for teaching and the occasional concert performance, while the summers were spent composing. The former had to take place in Paris, while the latter he now undertook at Nohant” (280).
Their home life was another source of tension. Sand, likely due to the towering force of her personality, her fame, and natural tendency towards surrounding herself with a boisterous and loyal social circle of talented artists, created almost constant animosity between Chopin, and her children, Solange and Maurice. Chopin and Maurice jealously competed for Sand’s attention and her relationship with Chopin, who was six years her junior, had a strangely maternal quality; she often acted as Chopin’s nursemaid when he was ill and sometimes referred to him as a “beloved corpse” as an admittedly tasteless term of endearment. Solange, on the other hand, was both competition for her mother, as she grew older and more beautiful, but never exhibited a particular talent of her own, other than that of causing drama.
Historically, Chopin and Sand’s relationship is generally considered a turbulent and unconventional, if fruitful union of opposites that spurned two artists onto greater achievements. Jack wrote, “There is a certain irony in the comparatively settled domesticity of Sand and Chopin’s life together. Their relationship was as close as either of them would come to happily married life” (280). When they met in 1836, at a party, Chopin admitted to finding her ugly or repellent, and was clearly terrified by her. In a letter penned at the dawn of their relationship, after learning of Sand’s impending arrival to Paris, Chopin wrote, “What is going to happen? God only knows, I don’t feel well” (Jack 271). She eventually wore down his fears of emotional and physical intimacy — including a pronounced sexual squeamishness — with her persistence, partly thanks to the intervention of his friend Grzymała, and by the summer of 1838, they found themselves in a sudden romance.
Despite — or perhaps because of — their differences, both were incredibly prolific during their time together. In one scene in La note bleue, Chopin admits, “I am a conformist and I lived with the least conformist of women.” Sand wrote A Winter in Majorca, a nonfiction work about their unpleasant first few months together spent on the island (because of the cold and Chopin’s dramatically failing health), and penned some 15 novels during their time together, including some of her most famous, like Horace (1840) and Consuelo (1842). This was also the most productive and creative period of Chopin’s life. His output during this time includes his some of his impromptus, a number of his most beautiful nocturnes, and the emergence of a Polish folk music influence in his compositions, which resulted in several mazurkas and polonaises. Most importantly, though, this is when he created all of his ethereal, albeit somewhat mysterious preludes, one of his crowning achievements. Schumann (one of Chopin’s early champions) called them “ruins,” and described them as “the morbid, the feverish, the repellent,” and they are a testament to Chopin’s mindset at the sudden eruption of Sand (and romantic passion) in his life.
Though La note bleue acknowledges this period — Chopin says, “If I hadn’t met George, if it wasn’t for this house, I wouldn’t have written all this,” and he calls Nohant his “refuge, his shelter, his cocoon” — the film does not depict this creative bloom, but the sudden withering of Chopin’s creative period; after his split with Sand, he would never compose again. By the point depicted in the film, their dissimilarity had become a corrosive, bitter force. Chopin says, “The rawness and the bitterness of things much take their revenge.” Zuławski’s decision to film the end of their relationship — and to focus on its more challenging aspects — is another instance of autobiography creeping into La note bleue. His relationship with the much younger Sophie Marceau, cast here as Solange, was beset by difficulties that parallel both the Chopin-Sand relationship, as well as the alleged affection between Chopin-Solange (which is believed to be hearsay or, at best, unconsummated).
Not only were Chopin and Zuławski both Polish emigres moored in France, but they were both essentially emasculated by relationships with very famous women who also happened to be other artists; Marceau’s fame as an actress in France far eclipsed Zuławski’s. And never one to miss an opportunity to put a love triangle in his films, the love between Chopin and Solange — which ends just as it is declared in La note bleue — parallels the age and cultural differences between Zuławski and Marceau. As Chopin was something of a father figure to Solange and joined the Sand household when she was just a child, Zuławski met Marceau early in her career when she was only 19 and became a mentor roughly the same time he became her lover.
However, like the majority of Zuławski’s male protagonists — from Michał in The Devil through Witold in Cosmos — Chopin is quite often shown to be absurd. Zuławski obviously identifies with the pianist and demonstrates his genius, but also makes fun of him; he is overly sensitive, often infantile, and frequently ridiculous. Early in the film, he plays piano with a clothespin on his nose, as something in his room is giving off a rotten smell, and has his Polish servant Jean (Pavel Slaby of Boris Godounov in a nearly film-stealing performance), hold his hands over Chopin’s ears. Solange tells him, “stop making yourself more ridiculous than you are.” In a particularly funny scene, his illness — believed to be tuberculosis or possibly cystic fibrosis — prevents him from walking through the grounds of Nohant towards a picnic, where the rest of the party is heading, and he rides on a too-small donkey with Jean clinging to the animal’s neck, steering desperately.
The film is bursting with warmth, joy, emotional exuberance, and certainly more humor than any of Zuławski’s other films, but it is also melancholic, occasionally bitter, and often quite cruel to its three leads (Chopin, Sand, and Solange), showing them to be contemptible and deeply flawed. Chopin’s outbursts seem to be a way to maintain his dignity and independence from Sand, who aggressively asserts her dominance over him, telling everyone, “I wanted him, I pursued him, and I got him.” Her intentional attempts to emasculate him embarrasses their friends. These exchanges are generally both comic and tragic. Sometimes, they expose the tension that draws them together; in one scene, he criticizes her “trooper’s manners” and she calls him a “perfumed moralist.” He responds by giving her a sassy look and applying some perfume to his neck with a flourish. But in a later scene, she chastises his eating habits — a running theme — and in retaliation, he smears mashed potatoes all over his face, an act that expresses defiance as well as a deeply ingrained sense of despair.
His childishness is complimented by Solange’s outrageously immature behavior. The first time I saw the film, I hated her character — though Marceau gives a compelling performance, as always — but the more times I watch La note bleue (at five times in three months, it’s now my most-watched movie of 2016), the more fragile and pathetic she becomes. I tend to rankle at depictions of mother-daughter relationships, which obviously says more about me than it does about Zuławski or Sand, but the tragedy of Solange’s life, and Zuławski’s interpretation of her in La note bleue, is that she was forced to make constant bids for love and attention. There is the sense that Solange is playing at everything — playing at sculpting, painting, and writing; playing at wearing men’s clothing and smoking cigars; and especially playing at love — but her actions are empty. There is no depth or substance to them, because she lacks a fundamental sense of herself, the world, or her place in it. Desperate to be loved, she asks Chopin, “Is it so difficult to be a pair?”
It is actually Solange who sets the tempo for the other characters’ behavior. She cries, throws relatively minor fits compared to some of Zuławski’s previous female protagonists, and has some comical scenes where she attempts to get Chopin’s attention — including a hilarious moments where she bathes in front of everyone while he’s playing the piano — but her actions could never really be described as hysterical, unlike Marceau’s roles in L’amour braque or Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, not to mention some of Zuławski’s other films. Like the majority of La note bleue’s characters, she is a strong example of the fact that everyone at Nohant is in constant competition for attention — in a sometimes beneficial and sometimes malicious way — that really only serves to make the great greater (Sand, Delacroix), but keeps the less talented in a place of perpetual servitude, fawning, and frustration.
In interviews on the film, Zuławski doesn’t really bother to disguise his dislike of Sand. This is possibly due to his personal association with Chopin’s experience being in a long-term, essentially emasculating relationship, but it is likely also due to her politics. She was an outspoken socialist, a subject that comes up several times during the film, where she condemns the aristocratic class that she herself belongs to and rudely brushes off Chopin and Grzymała’s discussion of their country. Grzymała reports that Russians are paying Polish peasants to cut off the heads of the insurrectionist nobles — he says, “the peasants are cutting the heads and selling them” — and Sand dismissively replies that Poland is always “on fire and in blood.” I’m sure that — like the much of the European left of the ‘70s and ‘80s — Zuławski saw her as a hypocrite, someone whose political beliefs came from a place of bourgeois privilege rather than real life experience or canny intellectual insight.
Zuławski also depicts George’s ability to manipulate a scene; she not only gets in the last word about a political matter (the aforementioned scene where Chopin and Grzymała’s discuss war in Poland), but prevents further discussion by crying and insulting herself, saying she is tired and overworked, so that everyone compliments and coddles her. She is indiscriminate and often inappropriate with physical affection and, during the course of La note bleue, admits to having an affair with Grzymała, passionately kisses her friend Pauline (Noemi Nadelmann), who she has pried away from her husband, the writer Louis Viardot (Serge Ridoux) to seduce Maurice (Benoit Le Pecq), and also kisses Solange’s new fiance. To make matters worse, in one of the final scenes, she reads aloud from her perhaps ill-advised novel Lucrezia Floriani (1846), where Chopin served as an obvious inspiration for the book’s delicate, absurd Eastern European noble who is in a relationship with a tormented actress. Though the real-life Sand denied it at the time and Chopin claimed to see no resemblance, her friends, particularly Delacroix and Balzac, found it to be a cruel mimicry of her life with Chopin.
Despite this — and whether or not I am simply looking at Sand through rose-colored glasses because of my lifelong fascination with her remains to be seen — the film is not unfair to her and her home, of which she is indisputedly the center, is depicted as a place of love, joy, warmth, humor, and, most of all, art. When I wrote about Boris Godounov last week, I mentioned the importance of food, restaurants, and kitchens throughout Zuławski’s films, but La note bleue has the most number of cooking scenes by far, with the spectacular ground-floor kitchen of Nohant as the centerpiece of the estate and often the site of the film’s most raucous action. One of my favorite scenes of the entire film involves Jean — determined to feed the delicate Chopin only traditional Polish fare — has stripped off his shoes and stockings, washed his feet in brandy (after maybe drinking some of it himself), and begins smashing cabbage with his feet in order to make sauerkraut, which leads to some hilarious physical comedy and the intoxication of the family dog.
The premise that gets the characters into the kitchen — despite the aristocratic or upper class origins of many of them — is the fact that Sand dismissed her servants for political reasons and declares that everyone will help with the cooking. La note bleue was originally inspired by Sand’s cookbook (you can find some of her recipes translated into English in the absolutely wonderful book, The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook) and food and cooking certainly held a prominent place both in her life and her writing. As in Sand’s novels and many of Zuławski’s films, the act of preparing and consuming food is a fundamentally human expression and, as exemplified in La note bleue, often an act symbolic of love, friendship, and familial affection.
One of La note bleue’s subtlest but most profound themes is its connection between the house as a literal place of support and shelter, the home as the symbolic site of personal identity, love, and family, and and the physical land itself as a place of both national and spiritual identity — not unlike the Germanic concept of Heimat, which is generally translated as “homeland,” but which implies an invisible, unbreakable connection between self, family, land, language, and culture. Without actually quoting direct references, the film often evokes Renaissance pastoral poetry and brings to mind the most famous lines from Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”:
Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
Zuławski, generally always dripping with literary references, allows me to return to Mickiewicz, whose epic poem about the early nineteenth century Russian invasion of Poland, Pan Tadeusz, is partially recited in La note bleue. As in many of Zulawski’s films, language becomes a way of making a deep connection to another person and often of conveying love; Jean admits that he speaks intentionally bad French, because Chopin gets so much pleasure from correcting him, while Solange is learning Polish to please him. During the brief scene where they admit their feelings for each other, Chopin and Solange recite a passage from Pan Tadeusz in Polish (from the film’s translation):
Oh my country, you are like health.
How much are you precious,
Only the one who lost it can know.
You will bring us back to your bosom by sheer miracle.
But for now, please fly my longing soul to your green pastures,
So vastly spread about the banks of your rivers,
To your wooded hills,
To your fields painted with sundry grains,
Gilded with wheat, silvered with rye,
Flowered with white, red with blood.
Here, Pan Tadeusz is an important connection between notions of national identity, home and homeland, and a spiritual, almost fantastical connection to the earth itself. In Monika Dudli’s Pushkin, Mickiewicz and the Overcoming of Romanticism, she wrote, “Pan Tadeusz represents a rather remarkable integration of classical and Christian modes of perception,” saying that the poem has a “pagan aura, reminiscent of unallegorical pastoral poetry” (38). She wrote that Mickiewicz has a “pagan tendency to personify natural forces” (50), a theme that emerges more fully in his poetic drama, Dziady (generally translated as “Forefathers”), but the personification of natural, even pagan forces is also the most singular element of La note bleue.
Because of course Zuławski couldn’t make a conventional biographical drama, the film is awash with fantasy elements, both in terms of visual and verbal language. The real-life Sand invented a figure called Corambe, which she describes in the film as being a sexless being who lives in nature. Zuławski depicts Corambe on screen through the beautiful, scantily clad form of actor Théophile Sowié, who is costumed like a Greek faun and is accompanied by Demogorgon (Clément Harari), the latter of whom is like a fat, hairy Pan figure. Demogorgon — a taboo, underworld figure believed to be created in the early medieval period but who became more known in Renaissance literature and is even given a mention by Dante, Spencer, and Milton, who describes him as an agent of chaos — is explained in La note bleue as a childhood creation of Delacroix, a personal deity and inspiration. The two figures wander in and out of the film, not entirely seen by the characters, but somehow felt by them. They say to each other, “We should protect them, as deep down they’re admirable.”
The film is also full of references to Greek mythology and Renaissance fantasy; Chopin compares Sand to a witch, a Gorgon, and a basilisk. Alexandre Dumas (fils) refers to Sand as an ogress when he briefly appears on the scene. Solange speaks to her first, admittedly brief fiance (Gilles Détroit, who gives the film’s funniest, most colorful performance next to Pavel Slaby) of losing her form, changing into a disgusting beast. Solange says to him, “the masks fall” — a major theme of Zuławski’s films — and there is a lot of dialogue about how both Sand and Solange sometimes appear beautiful and other times ugly, as if their flesh is shared, mutable, imbued with natural mystery.
And if Sand and Corambe represent the vibrant, pagan forces of the countryside, in some ways, Chopin serves as a shamanic figure in the film, a link between this fertile world of the living and the ghostly world of the dead. His role both within the film and historically is as a tormented figure on the threshold of death, the pale epitome of Romantic genius. Sand says of him, “He never stops dying and I’m scared of it.” Chopin himself admits, “I’m on my way towards death and I’m still full of music.” La note bleue’s strangest element is the appearance of stilted figures wrapped in flowing white or crimson gauze. Though they first show up on the horizon, haunting the fields and the wood, they gradually move into the house and begin crowding the rooms, alongside Corambe, Demogorgon, and an orange figure with copious amounts of hair that I assume is a strange interpretation of a dryad, as we first see her playing in the trees. Chopin, who seems to sense them the most clearly says he is reminded of “those ballads I composed when I was young where the dead were appearing all the time.”
His actual death, which occurred less than two years after his split with Sand, is not shown in the film; neither is their actual break up. Continuing with his themes of artifice, masks, performances, and occult forces, Zuławski’s plays out the film’s deeply affecting conclusion with a puppet show (thanks to some glorious creations from art director Jean-Vincent Puzos). A few of the principle characters are given a puppet version of themselves, which have startlingly accurate likenesses, to tell the end of their particular tale. Theatrical productions were a staple of entertaining at Nohant and were particularly beloved by Sand, but here the puppet play is eerie, even tragic. Characters like Chopin and Solange relate an end that we know is historically inevitable, but that Zuławski — through his obvious love for these characters — makes us wish could be different.