The Necessary Hysteria of Andrzej Żuławski

Almost a year after Andrzej Żuławski died of cancer, his films have become more essential than ever to revisit.

Movies Features Andrzej Zulawski
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The Necessary Hysteria of Andrzej Żuławski

On February 17th, 2016, not two months after his final film was released, Polish director Andrzej Zulawski died of cancer. Cosmos broke a 15-year hiatus for the filmmaker, who hadn’t worked since 2000. Despite his death, there has been no concerted effort to make his work more available; his first and last major retrospective was BAMcinématek’s 2012 “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski.” Select films, like 1981’s Possession, have received luxe, but limited, Blu-ray releases—otherwise, you’re out of luck.

Zulawski’s work is intimidating, no way around that, but it rewards viewers’ effort with a singular vision of madness. Possession is his best-known film, thanks to a (heavily edited) US theatrical release as the only Zulawski to show up in Stateside theaters. Its special effects, care of Carlo Rambaldi, and a handful of Hellraiser-style lure-and-murder scenes have garnered it a midnight movie reputation, but it spreads its gore and viscera across a grueling, digressive two hours of emotional turmoil and physical abuse that mercilessly depicts a failed marriage. In fact, the hypnotic extremity of Isabelle Adjani’s performance won her the Best Actress award at Cannes, a festival which Zulawski notably hated.

The formative image of Zulawski’s filmography appeared within the first five minutes of his first film, 1971’s The Third Part of the Night: a woman, her eyes impossibly wide, a bright splat of blood marking her face. It’s all bound up in her eyes, helplessness striking her dumb in the face of death. Zulawski’s work rightly endures, despite its unavailability, because of his devotion to rendering emotions like horror and desire and bloodlust in their most abject forms. A wilder Rainer Werner Fassbinder of sorts, Zulawski portrays characters who have long ago abandoned social decorum. When Mark (Sam Neill) in Possession splutters about his wife’s infidelity not being “proper,” the word sounds hilariously uptight in the midst of the film’s notorious hysteria.

Between Zulawski’s constantly roaming handheld camera, which remained a constant no matter who his cinematographer was, and the heightened performances he coaxed from his actors, his films achieve a sense of impending doom, capturing a world permeated by pre-apocalyptic jitters. Characters stroll by buildings awash in flame without a second glance; subway stations become delivery rooms for oozing homunculi; gun battles break out in the street with no warning.

Zulawski’s doom could be writ on a massive scale, as with the bombing raid that ends Possession. It could be intimate, as when a woman crushes her lover’s skull and spoons out his brains at the end of 1996’s Szamanka. In 1972’s Diabel, the world has gone mad with senseless violence; in 1975’s That Most Important Thing: Love, it is the titular emotion itself that becomes a noose. Gunshots in a Zulawski film explode into messy horror, grimmer than Verhoeven’s worst. A child’s brains are blown out; a pair of lovers bleed out in each other’s arms.

In a Zulawski film, human bodies are canvases for the savagery of the state, or white-hot flares of violent passion, or subject to brutal patterns that cycle throughout history. There is no future in these films; most of them end definitively and bloodily. In Zulawski’s first and final films, there is an Eye of Providence placed above a doorway. His characters often debate the nature of god, if not god’s very existence, but what would be worse? For god to be an invention, or for god to be watching, to see everything, and choosing not to intervene?

To read any interview with Zulawski is to realize he was a fiercely intelligent artist. Not that his films don’t evince this, but in his own words he possessed a clarity and directness that in turn only deepens the beauty and power of his work. We live in absurd times—art that deals this intimately, this earnestly with suffering is essential.

Astrid Budgor writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.