In America, especially, outside of POSSESSION his films are appreciated only by a few marginalized madmen. Situated within a specific category in our weird film libraries, it fits the 1970s-80s 'Euro-Horror' category, until the recent Mondo Vision restoration, it was avail. only as the flipside of double feature disc with the terrible Lamberto Bava's terrible BEYOND THE DOOR II. But it belongs elsewhere, with Kubrick and Godard and Bergman. So the horror fans think it's just 'sick' and the artsy types don't see it at all. There's horror that's just out to shock or gross you out and there's horror that's just a front to the abyss. If you go through the front, to look up close, you may never get out.
Just look at him, at left, with long-time girlfriend Sophie Marceau, with whom he made four films, two of which are seeable in the US, (one on a Mondo disc and one on Amazon Prime). Maybe it's that Cyrano de Bergerac is one of France's key mythic heroes, leading the greatest beauties in this or any generation to find great writers as sexy as rock stars and actors. Either way, I trust her judgment, and wish I was in Paris. So RIP to a great visionary mad man who made far too few films, and whose possibly greatest work, the science fiction film ON THE SILVER GLOBE, was never finished thanks to Polish government intervention. What were they afraid of?
Whatever it was, maybe they were right. Decades on and his best work is still dangerous. I'm not sure it could topple a regime, but even the more sex-drenched of the lot could topple your sanity right quick. I think you can handle it, though. And prayers and thoughts to his family and friends, and all those still sick and suffering in and out of Warsaw.
Here's a round-up of some of the Acidemic features on Zulawski's shimmering ouevre:
... the landscape of POSSESSION could be summed up in terms of SUNSHINE's mind washing machine, with Sam Neill trapped in inescapable loops with the same woman in different forms, with Winslet's hair changes and bi-polar mood swings reflected in Adjani's careening back and forth between the sterile apartment she shares with Neill and their son, Bob, and this decayed East Berlin apartment building, with its goop-covered floor and writhing tentacled lover like a decayed animal carcass swathed in glistening rainbow brown blood / oil paint palette runoff and being devoured by long large white worms. "He's very tired, he's been making love to me all night," Adjani says of the beast to a horrified gay detective before bashing his brains in with a jar of paint. She's so crazy by then she makes Klaus Kinski seem like Water Pidgeon.
By this time Neill has more or less detoxed and is playing the clean-cut parent, subject to fits only when Adjani comes careening back to put laundry away (in the fridge) and throw some cold cuts from the pantry into her suitcase and carve herself up with an electric knife while shouting and convulsing like she's receiving electro-shock therapy in the midst of a Macbeth monologue. Her character splits between two poles: one Adjani as nurturing elementary school teacher potential love interest (Sam's idealized femme) vs. the homicidal birther/fucker/painter of her own monster (ala Susan Hogan and Samantha Eggers and in The Brood) a blazing insane nightmare woman, shrieking and miscarrying an array of colors as if dissolving a painting in her womb to start again. (there's a kind of mention that she brought the ejected fetus whatever-thing over to that apartment and its been her sick lover ever since). Is it a metaphor for art, a masterpiece or an example of the way a true artist is in a state of exalted frenzied madness when working on their project, giving themselves over completely, maybe never to return, except in the form of that immortal art? It's ambiguous of course, cuz it's artsy first, horror second, but both far more than others. Zulawksi is exorcising emotions brought up by his own crumbling marriage at the time, the frustrations of jealousy and confusion when your lover is drifting over to the arms of another and reluctant to fill in the blanks your mind paints with lurid insane speculation, but--since he pursues the emotions to their extreme end-- the cumulative effect becomes far more cosmic.
Neil's characters have always made me dislike him and need to be cock-blocked by some younger, looser man, i.e. Harvey Keitel, Billy Zane, even Jeff Goldblum, so his innate sexually frustrated petulance has an intertextual context. But when delivered from being just a weird side platter of Pierce Brosnan /Anthony Perkins, and when given a part that calls for truly insane and giddy grace, he's suddenly big as all the ocean and the land. He makes you want to keep an eye on him so he doesn't suddenly appear behind you, smiling and showing you his new razor from your insides out. What makes him such a good secret agent (his last mission was something across the Wall where he'd been sizing up some scientist defector in pink socks on other side of the wall or something) lies in his ability to ride this tide of lunacy with confidence, able to match crazy for crazy, and then some. Wherever Adjani's crazy boat's going, he's going to match her, bob for bob. Sometimes going under, sometimes rising above, absorbing everything and everyone he sees, from his son's crashing toy airplanes to his rival's 'love of everything,' he's always more or less on the crest of that Poesy maelstrom. (cont.)
In Zulawski-ville you can have you cake, eat it too, store it in the fridge, throw it away in a fit of pride and self-will, fish it out later and freeze it, all at once, but it's still not going to satisfy your cake craving. And that is why his image is always stronger than the reality it services, like neo-realism reversed, and reversed back and forth atop, until it becomes raw blood, guts and modernism. As consumers of the image we're forced to reckon with the inescapable idea that baser arts such as smut make the higher arts possible and even 'high' by definition. Was not even Shakespeare once considered a 'low' art? It's only the dumbing down of already dumbed-down dumbness and the changes in linguistic structure that has made Shakespeare a "higher" art, just as flowers can't blossom without the girtty, ugly, muddy soil and the leering gaffers who tape it down. It is what it is because of what it isn't (the basic tenet of structuralism!) Thus artists are always courting the bourgeoisie for grants in order to make art that criticizes artists for taking grants from the bourgeoisie. No wonder Kinski has to kick so much ass just to get an orgy on for the night!
The importance of Kinski has still yet to be fully gauged, there is yet no meter with which to measure it. So when he hears that the RICHARD III will get the last part of the funding if they cast Nadine as Lady Anne, he suddenly remembers her from her last film, Nymphocula! (a Jess Franco film title if ever there was one!) which he remembers as "the one with two dykes in a castle with a dwarf. "She was fantastic," he cries, "amazing!" Kinski's own appearances in Eurosleaze titles are not only numerous to measure (he was in Nymphocula too, whether it exists or not) but intrinsic to the genre. He's the crucified, screaming (but angrily not in pain) scarecrow at the crossroads between genius, insanity, art, exploitation, raving anger, and complete detachment. Both creepy and sexy, he's never a full hero or villain: half debonair intellectual aesthete, half wild orangutan, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde swirled together like soft serve. Somehow when he does these low-rent high art man on a wire flicks his insanity keeps him grounded and he emerges unscathed from the carnage.
The sane, however, to judge by Zulawski's moping protagonists at any rate, remain permanently traumatized. They wanted to do Shakespeare and wound up in Eurosleaze; they're despondent about their failure but Kinski knows better: he brings the Shakespeare to the porn and the porn to the Shakespeare. (cont)
In that sense, no one does it quite as shamanistically correct as old Andrzej Zulawski --Jodorowsky is too vulgar, Emir Kusturica too whimsical, Lynch too straight, and Gilliam too bent. None are the types to take "fucking flybanes" at their science lab and pitch a doctoral thesis to their advisor and future father-in law while rolling around on the floor in the hospital chapel. In other words, to offer fusion of the dramatic, forward-thinking, mystical, druggy, and socio-political all without whimsy, vulgarity, raunchy, weird-for-weird's sake-ism, or any semblance of humor... or drama... Because Poles, like their Russian neighbors, just don't give a fuck. They sidestep altogether the things that trip up America--for all its talk of freedom--in unhackable tendrils of churchy censorship and narrative, in morasses of need to explain things to the rubes in the cheap seats. These students don't need to worry about narcs or rubes, due to the joys of the socialist education system. If they find some shrooms in the ancient pocket of the exhumed shaman, they're going to eat them. And wait for the shaman floating in the tub to make the first move. And they're going to hide that they did them from even us, so you have to know what the signs are, cuz they don't want to share. And the signs are indistinguishable from 'everyday' Warsaw life in the 1990s. (more)
Like Godard whom he clearly (and rightly) emulates, Zulawski throws you a new film language and expects you to hang on while he pulls you around by motorboat, and like Godard your enjoyment must depend on your ability to associate certain quotes, movements, and gestures with other films. When you see the bank robbers in their Disney masks knocking off a bank in the opening sequence you might think of Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break (1991); when they're horsing through an impromptu number on their getaway route, you might think of the Marxes on a cocaine bender or Emir Kusturica's frothy gypsies; the way the bourgeoisie endure endless abuse without ever losing their nonchalance evokes Bunuel -- but these names just locate the onscreen insanity in some kind of loose contextual framework. It doesn't help. This stuff is so fucked-up in its mad play on words-on-action genre and bourgeoisie art film expectation subversions that it can be hard to know where to set your bearings, but isn't that just Kubrick? It's a madness that can be hard to 'sink into' unless you are first "experienced" or have spent time in a lunatic theater company, or seen a lot of Bergman movies about lunatic theater companies, or are on meds, a lot of meds.
Queen of Disks (2007)--when a Viking woman stuck a knife to my throat as I was drinking coffee and I missed a chance to do a spit-take; my innate decency and worry about spilling coffee on my ratty jeans stopped me from doing one and/or dropping the coffee cup, just letting go. You know how impossible those things can be to do intentionally? Like when someone pays you to pee in your pants, and you just can't do it, no matter how hard you try, even though the money is good? The actors in this film don't have that problem --they crowd surf into total candy-coated confusion, they roll around on tables laden with food and the waiters don't bat an eyelash. They spazz out and sing at the top of their lungs while being chased by cops in riot gear, and then the riot cops forget where they parked. And it would all just be posturing if Zulawski didn't capture a realistic sense of Parisian hustle and bustle like he's a freakin' Oscar-hungry auteur riche. (cont)
See also the excellent entry on Andrzej on Breakfast in the Ruins:
And here to MONDO VISION