Director, screenwriter, novelist, essayist and actor born in 1940 in Lviv (now Ukraine), died in 2016 in Warsaw.
A non-conformist visionary of world cinema, his approach to storytelling is idiosyncratic and characterised by explosions of violence, sexuality, and despair. The actors in his movies have played out the most intensely high-pitched emotions in cinema history which inspired the French to coin the term 'Żuławskien', meaning 'over the top'. In an interview with Margaret Barton-Fumo, Żuławski describes his films as provoking a certain kind of awareness, nervousness, open-eyed-ness.
Although remaining unclassifiable, the vision of the world portrayed in his films has been described as tragic, shocking and hysterical, Żuławski himself retorts,
I do not make films in order to shock through form. I do not want to shock with things which I would consider to be esthetically, ethically or morally ugly. If there are difficult and brutal things in these films or if the films show a world which is not necessarily pretty or bright, the aim is to go through a tunnel and get to some light. There is a purpose, a method, in it. (...) The films are intended to send in motion the audience' feelings, thoughts, nerves, senses - in every respect.
Educated in philosophy at the Sorbonne and the IDHEC, in the 1960 after completing his studies, he was second director and assistant to Andrzej Wajda on his films Samson, Miłość Dwudziestolatków (Love at Twenty) and Popioły (The Ashes). Throughout the 1960s Żuławski published film reviews and poems. Son of the writer Mirosław Żuławski and father of the director Xawery Żuławski, his visions are also influenced by his experiences in wartime and communist Poland. His directorial debut were two short films - Pavoncello in 1967 and Pieśń triumfującej miłości (The Song of Triumphant Love) in 1969.
His first feature length film Trzecia część nocy (The Third Part of the Night)is a story about the cruelty of war. Based on the experiences of his father who ran experiments on Typhoid Fever infections, the film follows a fugitive who witnesses the murder of his family and enters a crazed world of traps, doubles, disease and death. In 1971, the film provoked considerable excitement.
The Devil, an extraordinary and highly controversial horror film shot in 1972, premiered only in 1988, because the director was arrested by the communist authorities before the premiere. Żuławski uses tricks which originate from Gothic horrors, blood and gangster films, magnifying and deforming them to the effect of a parody. The story is set in 1793 and a mysterious stranger – the devil – takes Jakub on a journey rich in nightmarish events.
Shot in France in 1976, L'important c'est d'aimer (The Most Important Thing: Love) is a dark film about the world of wasted talent and losers who can be saved only through love. Also in 1976 he was drawn back to Poland to shoot the first Polish Science Fiction film - On the Silver Globe. A space odyssey based on a book by Żuławski's great-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski, it shows a community of Earthians set up on a non-descript planet developing religious rituals. Its production process was stopped in 1978 and Żuławski did not resume it until 1986, when he edited and added sound to the forty-eight surviving parts of the film.
After losing his right to work in Poland at the end of the 1970s and his marriage to Małgorzata Braunek fell apart, he went to New York with the aim of committing suicide. Andy Warhol talked him out of it and within ten days, in 1981, Żuławski wrote the screenplay for Possession – the film for which he is best known, especially in the US. A portrait of a marriage in painful dissolution, 'Possession is a cry, a long howl from the depths of the soul, which gets relieved - when least expected - as a result of peace and quiet' says cinema expert Max Tessier. As Wall Street Journal's Kristin M. Jones puts it, 'Like movies by David Lynch or Roman Polański, Mr. Żuławski's work addresses love, madness and troubled relationships, but his approach to storytelling and his cosmology of personal, political and biblical allusions are all his own.' His fondness for the use of recurring themes, details and doppelgangers across multiple films as well as sudden intrusions of humor in the most horrific scenes becomes very apparent in Possession.
After Possession, the director staged many more films, such as La femme publique (The Public Woman) in 1984 about a young actress oppressed and bewildered by the indoctrination and sexual domination techniques of the eccentric director in whose film she is playing. In 1991 he made La note bleue (Blue Note) about Chopin’s love for George Sand dying down and his inspiration slowly drifting away. Sand calls the last note which he writes 'blue'. Polish critic Tomasz Jopkiewicz observes, 'Żuławski has created a world of bazaar-like apocalypse; a world of spectacular, picturesque disintegration, of decadent breaking of all ethical standards; a world brainwashed by evil'.
Szamanka (The Shaman,1996) is the story of a complicated love relationship between an emotionally damaged anthropology professor and a deranged or supernatural 'Italian', and an obsession with the body of a perfectly preserved 3,000-year-old shaman. Considered one of the most controversial films ever produced in Poland, SFBG’s Dennis Harvey comments,
Reviled in Poland, barely glimpsed elsewhere, the 1996 film was notorious before it was finished, with Żuławski accused of wildly mistreating 20-year-old 'discovery' Petry. She refused to comment, but immediately abandoned acting and reportedly sought spiritual succor in India. Even the sturdier Adjani said it took her years to get over making Possession. What to say about a director who drives actors over the brink? Only that the emotions — as is sometimes said of the millions spent on lavish productions — are all right up there on screen.
Fidélité, a 2000 French drama based on Madame de La Fayette's seventeenth century novel La Princesse de Clèves is about a talented photographer who lands a lucrative job in Paris with a scandal-mongering tabloid and becomes romantically involved with an eccentric children's book publisher while resisting the sexual advances of another photographer. Filmed on location in Paris, Fidelity received the Cabourg Romantic Film Festival Award for Best Actress (Sophie Marceau) and the Golden Swann Award (Andrzej Żuławski).
After 15 year-long break, Żuławski returned to directing with a feature described as a 'metaphysical thriller noir' and based on Witold Gombrowicz’s last novel Cosmos (1965). Considered a masterpiece and the most enigmatic work in Gombrowicz’s oeuvre, Cosmos remains a challenge to interpret. Set in Poland in the 1930’s, the novel follows a quasi-detective plot, which has the narrator, a student from Warsaw on vacation in Zakopane, investigate a series of signs and symbols. This brings him ever closer to madness and destruction of the self. The film premiered in competition at the Locarno International Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Direction.
Cosmos comes two years after the publication of Kronos - the intimate and scadalizing diary of Witold Gombrowicz. However, anyone expecting another scandalous and frantically hysteric work, of the kind which made Żuławski's fame years ago, may be disappointed.
Authoring 20 books, Żuławski has appeared in a few feature films, including Andrzej Wajda’s Samson, Joy Fleury’s Sadness and Beauty and the TV mini series by Josée Dayan Dangerous Liaisons. His life and person is illustrated in several documentaries: Melancholy: a portrait of Andrzej Żuławski (1994, a joint Polish and Belgian production, dir. Sylvie Guedel), Żuławski on Żuławski (2004, by Jakub Skoczeń).
Author: Halina Olczak-Moraczewska, August 2004, updated February 2016