Kiedy wszedłeś między wrony, musisz krakać jak i one.(‘When among the crows, caw as they do.’)
Andrzej Żuławski’s That Most Important Thing: Love (1975) is unlike any film he ever made, and was certainly a departure in his visual sensibility relative to the feature films he had made previously in his native Poland: The Third Part of the Night (1971) and The Devil (1972). Narratively and visually, the film is at once an oddity and a turning point in Żuławski’s oeuvre, and in viewing it, it would benefit the viewer to understand the director’s experience with the French cinematic tradition and its effect on his own cinema.
Żuławski was born into a well-known family of artists that spanned several generations in Poland, comparable to the Redgraves in the U.K. or the Wyeths in the United States. Artistic sensibilities in Żuławski’s time and place emerged largely from what Poles describe as a ‘romantic’ tradition begun in the nineteenth century—but which many western audiences often describe as a ‘surrealist’ or ‘grotesque’ tradition (which includes Witkacy, Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, Stefan Grabinski, and others)—and one certainly sees this tradition in all of Żuławski’s films. Despite this, Żuławski experienced French film culture early on, having trained at L’institut des hautes études cinématographes (IDHEL), where his professors included Jean Mitry and where he was exposed to the French New Wave.
As a whole, That Most Important Thing: Love owes something to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), which we know Żuławski saw and admired while attending IDHEL: the dynamic between the three leads set against a performing arts world, Georges Delerue’s melodramatic music, et cetera. The opening shots of both films are practically the same: An unbroken take wherein the viewer follows a film crew that in turn follows an actress performing a scene. Michael Goddard has described how the film’s subject reflects the experience of an emigre director working in France, with the comedic stylings of Jacques (Jacques Dutronc) and the portrayal of the porno film business in lieu of the ‘legitimate’ film business.
Top: Contempt. Above: That Most Important Thing: Love.
But how did the appearance of Żuławski’s films change after he arrived in France? European cinema of course had had at that time a history of combining the ‘genetic material’ of different national cinemas (one sees a distinct change in Luis Buñuel’s visual sensibility, for instance, with the first film he made in a French register, Diary of a Chambermaid). A better question would be: what makes Żuławski’s French films look ‘French’ and his Polish films look ‘Polish?’ In the specific case of Love, it makes sense to distinguish between a film production’s cameraman and its cinematographer.
The kinesis—being the often frantic movement of bodies through space—one sees in Żuławski’s films is due in part to Andrzej Jaroszewicz, who served as both cinematographer and cameraman on The Devil. Both the photography and camerawork in that film suggest a fractured mind as it observes and often conflicts with the world around it—accomplished by Jaroszewicz literally running through spaces with a handheld camera. Love is a departure in that Jaroszewicz slows the action down, using the camera instead as a tool in developing relations between people, space and each other. Exchanges between characters are often captured in long, unbroken takes, several of which last between 90 and 120 seconds. Consider the longest take in the film, beginning with Karl-Heinz (Klaus Kinski) consoling Nadine (Romy Schneider) in her dressing room while Servais (Fabio Testi) watches off-screen, following them out into the corridor, and staying with Servais after the two have walked away. The camera’s snaking in and out of corridors and dressing rooms implies the dramatic fallout of a scene long after it has ended.
Jaroszewicz functioned solely as cameraman on Love while the cinematographer was Ricardo Aronowich, who is best-known as the director of photography on films by François Truffaut, Raúl Ruiz, and Costa-Gavras throughout the 1970s. The film retains the kinesis of Żuławski’s Polish films yet adopts a more ‘French’ texture—typically by mounting and pivoting the camera and using slow zooms. One might compare Love’s overall ‘look’ to Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971), photographed by Aronowich: Jaroszewicz’s chiaroscuro from The Devil is absent and replaced by more neutral colors and stage-like, diffused light sources.
Top: Murmur of the Heart. Above: That Most Important Thing: Love.
Further, one will notice that elsewhere in Love, Żuławski adopts the trappings of popular Western European cinema from the mid-1970s, as with a comparison between its orgy scene and a similarly-staged scene taking place in a brothel in The Devil. While the content of the former is just as graphic as that in the latter, the mounted camera and use of slow zoom in Love resembles several works of French or Italian porno-chic of the mid-1970s such as Emmanuelle (1974) or The Story of O (1975).
The distinction between ‘Polish’ and ‘French’ is of course arbitrary and functions merely as a template for viewing stylistic shift in the case of Love. By 1975, film production in Western Europe had become increasingly international. Regarding Poles directing films in the West specifically, by the end of the 1960s Walerian Borowczyk, Andrzej Wajda, and Roman Polanski had all worked primarily as emigres in France or the UK, and we know from writing by Dina Iordanova that directors who had left the eastern bloc mid-century did not necessarily distinguish themselves with subject matter critical of the bloc (though Żuławski would later do this in Possession). Viewers more likely will identify Borowczyk, Polanski, or Żuławski by their visual style—granted, a style produced by a furnace of visual sensibilities. Repulsion (1965) combines Polanski’s predilection for a handheld camera with Alan Hall’s ‘mod’ street photography (in the same year, Hall was camera operator for Lester’s The Knack…And How To Get It), while La marge (1976) combines Borowczyk’s low depth of field tableaux vivants with visual staples of French erotica (cinematographer Bernard Daillencourt, French by birth, had been cinematographer for erotic films by Pierre-Alain Jovilet since the late 1960s). Żuławski’s first film made outside of Poland is cut from the same cloth, containing vestigial traces of both ‘Polish’ and ‘French’ visual components in its countenance. In Love, the viewer sees both the mania of his previous work and dour emotional landscapes to come.
That Most Important Thing: Love