Polish filmmaker and artist Andrzej Żuławski passed away at the age of 75 on February 17th 2016. The Polish film director, who has also written screenplays, essays and novels, was internationally renowned as an uncompromising visionary.
In France and Poland, the film community mourns his inimitable style amidst the hype caused by his latest film, Cosmos. Gilles Jacob, former president of the Cannes Festival, posted a moving and concise portrait on Twitter:
He knew that the most important is to love. He was curious/erudite/cultured/brilliant his camera had a twitch
a liberated filmmaker/avant-garde/frenetic camera and supercharged eroticism/Zulawski was a writer/a poet/a philosopher/Wajda’s heir/another rebel!
Andrzej Żuławski was born in Lviv in 1940 and grew up in France, where he moved with his parents at the age of 5. He studied philosophy of cinematography at the Sorbonne and first began his work in film-making as second director and assistant to Andrzej Wajda.
Upon hearing about his former assistant's death, Andrzej Wajda recalled him with respect and fondness:
Andrzej Żuławski, who I always listened to closely, was a very well-educated man. His years in Paris gave him an education that was difficult to obtain in Poland. He was a creative and ingenious director. Back when he worked as my assistant, many of his ideas made it into my films.
It is also significant that despite the fact his fluent knowledge of French and English allowed him to work anywhere, he decided to start his film-making career here in Poland. And that is why his films have their own particular character. After all, those pictures of Poland were created by someone who had a different perception, a more European perspective.
Wajda stated that he hadn't yet seen Żuławski's last film, Cosmos, but that he was looking forward to it since it was "beautiful that with his last film he returned to a Polish subject."
When his directorial debut The Third Part of the Night appeared, Żuławski established himself as a unconventional filmmaker. A moving image of war and the chaos, The Third Part of the Night (1971) was inspired by the life of the director's father, Mirosław Żuławski, who worked at the Institute of Typhus Research during World War II. The film, intriguing in both form and content, garnered considerable controversy.
Żuławski's cinematic experiments continued with The Devil (1988). A visionary philosophical horror film set in the 18th century, it centred around a devil-like character and includes gory depictions of violence. Even though the movie was shot in 1972, it only premiered in 1988. Its original premiere was halted when Żuławski arrested for political subversion by the communist authorities.
Afterwards, the director left Poland for France, where he directed That Most Important Thing: Love, starring Romy Schneider. Shot in 1976, it is a dark film about wasted talent and redeeming love. Besides his films, Andrzej Żuławski has authored 20 books and has acted in several productions. In 2002 he was awarded the French Legion of Honour.
Jacques Mandelbaum, famous French cinema critic, wrote in Le Monde:
Andrzej Żuławski leaves us with the memory of an artist of passion, which he incarnated with every excess owed to this feeling, in a manner that was violent, perverse, eruptive, 'hysterical,' to use a trenchant word. He was criticised for it, but also credited for it as a sign of his elated momentum, without half measures, at times Manichean, ultimately romantic, which impelled him to the details of life, and especially to his art [...] Andrzej Żuławski's oeuvre transposed the tragedy and pathos of Poland's fate into the intimate grounds of love. This truncated, aleniated, persecuted, disintegrated country furiously aspiring to integrity never ceased to inhabit the filmmaker, and he projected it onscreen in the convulsive guise of sentimental possession.
Some of Żuławski's other notable films:
On the Silver Globe
Shortly after That Most Important Thing: Love, he was drawn back to Poland to shoot an ambitious 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 living on a non-descript planet where they observe strange religious rituals. Filming took place not only around Poland, but also Crimea, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, and even the Gobi Desert to find the perfect Moon-like environments. But the communist authorities stopped the production in 1978.
When Żuławski was finally allowed to resume it in 1988, he underlined the futility of returning to the film after such a long time by replacing all the missing scenes with unrelated footage of everyday city life in 1980s Warsaw, along with his own voice narrating over them. Critic Michael Atkinson wrote in his book Exile Cinema: 'In whatever form, "On the Silver Globe" remains one of the most unforgettable visual assaults in movie history.'
Żuławski's films explore the strongest human emotions and are typically directed in non-linear and surreal ways. Thanks to his unmistakable style, the French coined the term 'Żuławskien' in French, meaning ‘over the top.’ This is definitely traceable in one of Żuławski's most famous films, Possession. Starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, this sexually-charged psychological thriller is a portrait of a failing marriage. The husband, disturbed by his wife's unusual behaviour, hires a private investigator to follow her, only to learn that she is possessed. Despite shocking many audiences, the film was awarded the prestigous Palme d'Or at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival.
She-Shaman, produced in Poland in 1996, is equally troubling. The film depicts a complicated relationship between a middle-aged anthropology professor and a young student, as well as his growing obsession with the newly-discovered remains of a 3,000-year-old shaman. In typical Żuławski style, the film forces viewers to confront human obsessions through the use of visceral imagery and sexuality.
His last movie, which premiered only last year after Żuławski's 15 year-long break from film-making, was Cosmos, an adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz's classic novel under the same title. Dubbed 'a metaphysical noir thriller', it is the story of a young man gradually immersing himself in the uncanny and the surreal. The film would go on to have its US premiere just two days after Żuławski's death.
Sources: Culture.pl, PAP, Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work beyond Hollywood by Michael Atkinson, Le Monde, edited by OK, AZ & LB, 17/02/16