On the 17th of February, 2016, the cinematic world took a huge blow when it was announced that Andrzej Zulawski, perhaps the greatest Polish filmmaker, a man who had just recently finished a new feature after a fifteen year break, had died at the age of 75. He had died after a battle with cancer, which may well have been the reason for that final feature. Unfortunately, it took his death for someone to take notice, but thankfully, now TIFF has seen fit to program a retrospective of his works to be shown at the Lightbox this summer.
But who is Zulawski and why should the reader be aware of him? Ultimately, there are two kinds of people: those who love Zulawski and those who have never heard of him, even if they have seen Possession. Due to the tendencies of the canon, most countries (outside of the big five) get a limited number of internationally renowned artists and Poland already has Kieslowski, Polanski and arguably Wajda, leaving no room for the artistry of Zulawski. So, again, why should the reader be aware of Zulawski? Because he was one of the most daring filmmakers to practice the art with one of the most distinctive styles: what he did was chaos.
Before moving along, it should be noted that this retrospective is by no means comprehensive, but it does potentially leave room for further exploration. The most glaring omission is one of Zulawski’s most Zulawskian works, My Nights are More Beautiful than Your Days (1989), a devastating romance between two damaged individuals which delves deeper into the madness of attraction than anyone else ever has. Other films missing include the one-two punch of dizzying Dostoevsky-inspired works The Public Woman (1984) and L’amour Braque (1985), the filmed opera Boris Godounov (1989) and the most underrated, second most uncharacteristic of his works, the gorgeous Chopin biopic The Blue Note (1991).
With that out of the way, the retrospective begins right at the beginning with Zulawski’s first two Polish films: The Third Part of the Night (1971) and The Devil (1972). Some purists name these as his best works, but it is obvious here that Zulawski is still finding his voice. These films contain Zulawski’s political chaos and hints of the imagery for which he would become well known, but they are still shot in the generic style of Communist Polish cinema. This was then followed up with his exile from Poland and the creation of The Most Important Thing: Love (1975), a film which appeared to threaten a complete overhaul of Zulawski’s style: gone were the low-budget aesthetics but so too were his usual touches; this film was much more generic than anyone was willing to admit, but it may have allowed him the opportunity to make his two most brilliant films, both of which are showcased in this program: his first English-language film Possession (1981) and the sadly left incomplete On the Silver Globe (1988).
Possession, his most well-known film, brings together Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, who portray a couple going through a separation, as Adjani begins to show unusual behaviour and takes a literal monster as a lover. Gone is the subtlety of his early Polish work, replaced instead by dizzying camera work, hallucinatory images and a nice mixture of sex and violence. To the viewer who has only seen Possession, it may be surprising to learn that On the Silver Globe turns up all of these elements to eleven! In this sci-fi epic filmed on a beach substituting for a deserted planet, a group of astronauts begin a primitive society which quickly leads to dogmatic government which even more quickly leads to dogmatic violence. This film was also banned and heavily cut by Polish censors and it is a testament to its artistic vision that this bowdlerized version is still an absolute masterpiece.
After ten features, Zulawski was reaching the end of his career and he took this opportunity to make his most sexually charged film, Szamanka (1996), as well as his one misfire, Fidelity (2000). It could be that he just got tired of filmmaking, in the same vein as Robert Bresson, or maybe he lost any goodwill he had gathered as a result of his last two works, but Zulawski did not work again for well over a decade. The announcement of his newest film took a lot of people by surprise. Sadly, he would not live long enough for the Toronto premiere of Cosmos (2015).
Cosmos is very different from Zulawski’s other works, but it has occasional moments of that chaos for which he is renowned. At its base, though, this film is a love letter to life, as well as a goodbye to his fans. It should be viewed last, chronologically-speaking, to get the full effect.
Celebrate the life and career of Andrzej Zulawski with Mad Love: Andrzej Zulawski’s Cinema Hysteria at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from June 25th (Possession) to August 6 (Cosmos). Click here for more details.