A glimpse of Pola Negri transforming from ballerina into vamp in the 1917 Polish silent film Bestia fills the screen between the main title and the registration of Andrzej Zulawski’s name in his debut film as lead director. This distressed footage of her violent, writhing performance looks in retrospect like an emblem for the thematic fixations that Zulawski has pursued throughout his career to say nothing of the frenetic, highly choreographed movement style that he has demanded from his actors and cinematographers alike. The 27 minute television film is based on a story by Stefan Żeromski which Zulawski adapted for Polish television in collaboration with his father, the poet, journalist, and diplomat Miroslaw Zulawski. It tells the story of Szczebieniew, a rich and ailing old man, and Zinaida, his vibrant and beautiful young wife. Set in the nineteen-teens, the film opens in a movie theater where Ernesto Fosca is playing a vigorous piece on his violin over a storm of other sounds that are accompanying Pola Negri’s tantalizing dance. Escorted by her husband’s servant and confidant, Zinaida enters and takes her seat in the Orchestra box. Fosca, paralyzed as he catches sight of Zinaida’s beauty, is intoxicated when she returns his gaze. In a trance, he begins to play a swooning romantic piece which costs him his job. Along with his coffin-shaped fiddle case, Fosca is ejected from the theater into the muck of a filthy gutter by the house manager.
Pavoncello is the nickname that Zeromski’s story tells us the violinist acquired for his “satanic beauty.” Thus named after a breed of peacock, Fosca is presented in the tale and in Zulawski’s film as a man whose physical charm will become a permanent torment as he learns that Zinaida’s attraction to him has been carefully stage-managed by another man in order to fulfill his own interests, a familiar narrative scheme not only in Zulawski’s films, but in those of other expatriate Polish filmmakers (for example, in Polanski’s Bitter Moon). —KG
Andrzej Zulawski was born on the territory of what was then the U.S.S.R. in a Polish family with remarkable traditions in arts and literature. After World War II, his father’s diplomatic career brought the family to France (1945-1949), Czechoslovakia (1949-1952), and finally to Poland. He studied film direction at IDHEC in Paris (1957-1959) and philosophy at both Warsaw University (1961) and Université de Paris (1962-1964).
First, he assisted the famous Polish director Andrzej Wajda during the filming of Samson (1961), Popioly (1966), and the Warsaw episode of L’Amour à Vingt Ans (1962). In 1967, Zulawski directed two short films, Piesn Triumfujacej Milosci and Pavoncello, for Polish TV.
His feature debut, Trzecia Czesc Nocy (1971), as well as those previous films were co-scripted by his father, poet Miroslaw Zulawski. The picture was well received at the Venice Film Festival and awarded as the Best Debut in its homeland, but had only limited release due to Polish censorship… read more
A discussion with director for his first US retrospective.
Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Żuławski is the first complete retrospective in the US.
Coming soon: Zulawski’s first complete retrospective in the US. Film Comment selects 32 films. Berlinale lineup? Now complete.