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An Andrzej Zuławski Retrospective: L’amour braque

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Arguably among director Andrzej Zuławski’s most difficult films, L’amour braque (1985) resides somewhere at the crossroads of Dostoyevsky’s fraught 1868 novel The Idiot — the credits state that, “The film is inspired by Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and it is intended as a tribute to the great writer” — Louise Brooks’ iconic turn in Pabst’s Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (1929) aka Diary of a Lost Girl, and the fluorescent-lit, frequently crime-themed Cinéma du look. But it is far from a simple exercise in style over substance and is stuffed to the brim with literary and pop culture references thanks to rapid-fire dialogue from French songwriter Étienne Roda-Gil, the pace of which is matched only by Jean-François Robin’s dizzying, balletic cinematography that would be equally at home in a musical. It is not a film for the faint of heart, but, next to La femme publique (1984) and Cosmos (2015), remains a testament to Zuławski’s skill as an adapter of rich, difficult literary texts. And, perhaps to my surprise, I’ve found this title worming its way into my heart more than my first viewing would have suggested possible.

The film’s chaotic plot concerns a gang of bank robbers led by Micky (Tchéky Karyo), who encounter a strange man named Léon (Francis Huster, fresh off Zuławski’s La femme publique) on the train and bring him into their inner circle. He and Micky share a mutual fascination, while Léon also falls in love with Micky’s beautiful girlfriend, Marie (Sophie Marceau). She has been forced into prostitution by a group of gangster and her vendetta against them, as well as the increasingly tense love triangle developing between she, Micky, and Léon, drives the threesome towards a violent end.

With its neon backdrops of Parisian nightlife in the ‘80s, alienated and strange protagonists, and themes of crime and violence, L’amour braque arguably has much in common with a concurrent movement in French film, Cinéma du look. Its early key titles are thrillers that revolve around young lovers who stumble into worlds of organized crime, corruption, and prostitution: Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), Luc Besson’s Subway (1985), and Besson’s later Nikita (1990). But the similarity ends there. The use of these themes in L’amour braque is likely another example of Zuławski’s canny manipulation of genre; for example, I’ve already written about his use of the horror genre in The Devil (1972) and Possession (1981), and his sly references to softcore exploitation cinema in L’important c’est d’aimer (1975).

The way into understanding the film’s frenzied approach to dialogue, character, and plot is not action cinema, but rather Dostoyevsky. While I think the novelist’s work has a broad impact on Zuławski’s career in general — particularly his approach to love and female characters — L’amour braque can be seen as a companion piece to La femme publique, which is an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s even more challenging tale of political violence in rural Russia, Demons. Both revolve around female characters with a notable sense of agency compared to Zuławski’s earlier films, and both effectively dip into the well of the thriller and action genres with bombastic sequences of fistfights, firefights, explosions, and car chases that were prefigured in Possession and really only reappear in La fidélité (2001).

But compared to Dostoyevsky’s Demons — with its numerous murders, suicides, arson, and an orgy of drunkenness — The Idiot is a subdued intellectual exercise with little actual violence, excepting a failed suicide, a few domestic disputes, and a robust slap or two… as well as the novel’s concluding murder. The book follows Prince Myshkin, a strange, naive young man who is traveling back to Russia after years in a European sanitarium. He is regarded by others as a fool, because of his innocence and enthusiasm. He falls in love with a troubled woman, the renowned beauty Nastassya Filippovna, but the violently passionate Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin — who Myshkin meets and befriends on his train ride home — is also obsessed with her. Amidst local complications that include a mother trying to marry off her three daughters, Nastassya struggles to choose between Myshkin and Rogozhin, with perhaps predictably tragic results.

Unlike La femme publique’s tenuous, slippery use of Demons, L’amour braque is actually a relatively faithful adaptation of The Idiot — of course with the addition of gangsters, robbery, gun violence, as well as (incredibly) a flamethrower, and a handful of perversely erotic sex scenes. In particular, the main sequence of events, where Myshkin and Rogozhin meet on a train and then travel around the countryside, intimately bonding or fighting over Nastassya, also makes up L’amour braque’s central structure. As Zuławski’s title indicates, it is primarily the novel’s central love triangle that is the direct parallel between the two, as well as the importance of its three protagonists: with Marie as a stand in for Nastassya, Léon as Prince Myshkin, and Micky as Rogozhin.

The film’s title is usually translated as Mad Love, though “braque” has a number of interesting variations. As an adjective, it generally means “bizarre,” “fantastique,” or even “whimsical,” though the verb form can also mean “to shine,” “to point,” to aim,” “to hold up,” “to stick up” (as in a robbery), “to antagonize,” and “to lock.” The love that binds the three protagonists is at once illuminating and confining — and is certainly an antagonizing force — and, as with Myshkin’s ultimate fate in The Idiot when he discovers that Nastassya has been stabbed through the heart by Rogozhin, it results in oblivion for all three characters.

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In both the novel and the film, it is the titular idiot who acts as the romantic triangle’s axis point, though he is initially something of a sexless figure. The character of Myshkin — almost abject in his naïveté and baselessness — actually made The Idiot one of my least favorite of Dostoyevsky’s novels and one I had trouble engaging with, at least until I saw L’amour braque. Academics have frequently read him as something of a martyr or Christ figure, though German/Swiss novelist Hermann Hesse thankfully challenged this interpretation in an essay, “Thoughts on The Idiot of Dostoevsky.” He wrote that Myshkin, “has often been compared with Christ. Of course such a comparison can be made. One can compare with the Saviour every man who lays bare magical truth, who no longer separates thought from life, and, who on that account lives a life of solitude among hostile neighbours.” Hesse goes on to say that, “Only one trait in Myshkin’s character, but an important one, appears to me as Christlike. I allude to his timid, morbid purity. The secret fear of sex and of procreation is a trait which must be reckoned with in the message of Christ for it plays a distinct part in his world mission.”

While this “morbid purity” does not prevent Myshkin from becoming romantically entangled with Nastassya (and later, a second female character, Aglaya), he remains the passive, tender, and essentially platonic counterpart to the violent sexual passion exhibited by Rogozhin. Zuławski turns this on its head for L’amour braque by including sex scenes between Léon and Marie. In the beginning of the film, Léon tells Micky, “I have never been in love, just sick,” and in general his relationship with Marie is defined by the presence of fluids, bodily and otherwise: snot, tears, saliva, semen, blood, rain, wine, and even food. She seduces him in an increasingly elaborate ritual of emasculation. She takes his virginity and later ties him up, puts makeup on him, and humiliates him. Several times she spits or drools onto his face and, in a symbolic parallel to the loss of female virginity, he says, “it hurts… I bleed,” confusing the spilling of semen for blood during their first sexual encounter. Later she calls him her dog.

These acts of sexual humiliation seem to be a reaction against her confused feelings for him; as in Possession, an attempt to gain control in a situation where she feels she has none. She tells Léon that with him, “Everything is chaos, chance, pain, disorder.” Every time she leaves (or is separated from) him, he has increasingly hysterical breakdowns and takes on a strangely feminine presence within the film. Hesse wrote that Myshkin is a subversive figure within literature because he represents the chaos inherent in the idea that, “it is possible to say ‘Yes’ to everything.” This reminded me of another of Zuławski’s important literary influences, James Joyce, and particularly Molly Bloom’s soliloquy that closes out Ulysses.

In what is arguably one of the most romantic passages in Western literature, she muses on falling in love and beginning a sexual relationship, punctuating the paragraph with the rhythmic repetition of words in favor of conventional grammar: “I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellman quoted the writer as describing her fundamentally erotic, unconditional “yes” as a word that signifies, “acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance” (712).

Léon’s sense of total abandon toward both Marie and Micky is contrasted by Marie’s femme fatale persona and her use of domination and humiliation to control Léon. Perhaps innately grasping some fundamental truth about her, when Léon is first shown her photograph by Micky, he remarks, “She is cold, you should warm her,” and she is later compared to ice and diamonds. Her charismatic sexuality is a hard, mask-like surface that conceals a desire for vengeance that is not a result of the “tiny, tiny alterations” that drove Raskolnikov to murder in Crime and Punishment, but is the result of years of systemic abuse. Her life of enforced prostitution is perhaps a more dramatic imagining of Nastassya’s plight — she was treated as a concubine in her teenage years by her benefactor and guardian — and Marie states, “I live as my mother lived… in the flesh, without pleasure.”

Notably, Marie’s appearance evokes Louise Brooks’ troubled young prostitute of films like Diary of a Lost Girl — from her bob haircut and bangs to seemingly vintage-inspired costumes — and Die Büchse der Pandora (1929) aka Pandora’s Box. Marie seems to be equally inspired by the gangster’s moll character of Pre-Code films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932), but she is far more than this early stereotype or its evolution in the form of the seductive film noir antagonist of the’40s. Her path to liberation — like Anna’s in Possession or the Italian’s in Szamanka — is ultimately violent. It is actually retribution for the murder of her mother, which is disturbingly depicted as a snuff film that is screened towards the end of the film. It explains the culmination of events within L’amour braque, but replaces any sense of relief the viewer may feel with sickening dread and an assurance that there is no way Marie, or the men in her life, will be able to turn from this path.

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Both Dostoyevsky and Zuławski seem to suggest that sublime female beauty is a burden or a curse and, following that, that romantic love is a living hell. Though this was far from a new theme in Zuławski’s films and is essentially the overarching thesis of his entire canon, L’amour braque is a curious departure in some ways. Where Le femme publique marked a turning point in how Zuławski portrayed female characters — Ethel is effectively his first fully-fledged female protagonist — L’amour braque is perhaps more important because it was the first of several collaborations with his long-time romantic partner, Sophie Marceau. Marceau’s Marie, even more so than Ethel, has a strong sense of personal agency and there is the feeling that, like the later character of the Italian in Szamanka (1996), she controls her own destiny. Her refusal to be victimized is not merely defensive posturing, but offensive strategizing.

Zuławski’s use of Marie — and of his female characters in general — provides an interesting parallel with Dostoyevsky’s obvious deference to his often hysterical female protagonists who run a gamut of emotions not often seen in literature or cinema. They exhibit everything from innocence to cruelty, from great passion to agonizing suffering, and from a profound sense of self-awareness to an overwhelming drive for personal annihilation. It’s easy to read many of Dostoyevsky’s women — particularly Nastassja and Aglaya from The Idiot, Lizaveta from Demons, or my favorite of his characters, Grushenka from The Brothers Karamazov as a profound influence on Zuławski’s female characters.

What Hesse wrote of Nastassya (and a number of Dostoyevsky’s other protagonists) also rings true for Zuławski’s characters: “All are represented as strange, exceptional beings, but in such a way that their eeriness and soul-sickness inspire that sort of awed veneration that the Asiatics feel for the insane… We look these criminals, hystericals, and idiots of Dostoevsky in the face in quite a different way from that in which we regard the criminals or fools in other novels, even in novels we have affection for. It is strange and uncanny to realize that in some curious way we love these bad people, to realize that there must be in us something akin to them, something that is like them.”

It is this sense of profound love, and perhaps a strange loyalty, that makes me feel so attached to L’amour braque, despite that fact that it’s troubling to write or think about. Few of Zuławski’s characters are as worthy of love as Léon, thanks in part to a tremendous performance from Francis Huster, one that actually makes it difficult for me to watch him in La femme publique. Few are as generous and whimsical as Micky, again thanks to a near film-stealing turn from Tchéky Karyo, displaying far more depth of talent here than he did in any of the Cinéma du look films in which he was cast. And, though perhaps we are seeing through they eyes of a director in love, few are as enigmatic yet empathetic as Marie, sentiments that extend even to the absolutely raving monologue she delivers from Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Marie says, “I destroy everything I love,” a prediction that turns out to be true, but like the acts of suicide and murder in The Devil, L’important c’est d’aimer, Possession, La femme publique, and Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989), a violent end is inevitable and mingled with a strange sense of release. What Hesse wrote about the ultimate power of Myshkin and The Idiot also applies to the ending of L’amour braque: “The future is uncertain, but the road which he shows can have but one meaning. It means a new spiritual dispensation. This takes us beyond Myshkin, it points towards magical thinking, to the acceptance of Chaos, to a return to anarchy, back into the unconscious, into formlessness, into the beast, back far beyond the beast, back to the beginnings of everything.”

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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