By Aaron Hillis
L'important c'est d'aimer (The Important Thing is to Love)
Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
1975, 113 minutes, In French with English subtitles
The opening seven minutes of Polish iconoclast Zulawski's first French production—adapted with Christopher Frank from his novel La nuit américaine (no relation to Truffaut's Day For Night)—tease with such psychodramatic intensity that one might mistakenly brace for the button-pushing provocations of an exploitation flick. It opens with hard-luck actress Nadine Chevalier (Romy Schneider, who won a Best Actress César award in 1976 for the film) staring at the camera in someone's domicile, a woman's offscreen voice cueing her to back up, turn around and approach the body of a dead gunman leaning against a blood-splattered wall. We're on a movie set, and world-weary freelance photog Servais Mont (Fabio Testi) has just crashed the party, bribing anyone who questions him while taking unsanctioned shots of the movie star. The barking director demands Nadine mount the fake-bloodied corpse and profess "je t'aime," but in the moment, she can't perform, and Servais captures her vulnerable, tear-streaked visage before he's thrown off the set, his negatives taken, and a fistfight erupting with two crewmembers. Beaten, but not without getting in his blows, Servais escapes with a roll of undeveloped film hidden in his mouth, and takes off for another gig to shoot gay bodybuilder porn—a financial obligation to seedy loan sharks. Whether it's 1975 or 2009, sometimes we all have to whore ourselves out to get by in desperate times, so don't you go judging our ethically lax anti-hero. (Side note: will this new recession prompt for more characters sinking to the lowest of lows for a buck?)
The film soon reveals a love triangle not unlike the twisted psychological dynamics of a Polanski film, as Servais immediately falls for Nadine, except she's already married to clownish cinephile Jacques (irreverent pop dandy Jacques Dutronc), a passively sinister cuckold who puts the "imp" in impotence. Saved by her husband from a life of prostitution and debauchery but now morally indebted to him to star in soft-core trash like Nymphocula ("But of course," a flamboyant actor named Karl-Heinz Zimmer recognizes her work by title; it's the one with "two dykes in a castle with a dwarf"), Nadine flirts back with this new suitor, though her desires aren't so much physical as they are about intimacy and secret conversation. Barely staying afloat with his sordid day job (this may be the first film to blindside me with an orgy), the hopelessly romantic Servais borrows money to fund—and save Nadine with a starring role in—an amazingly gaudy stage production of Richard III, the lead of which is to be played by the aforementioned Zimmer (Klaus Kinski, colorfully stealing every scene as he was wont to do).
So the objectified image of beauty is thus torn between the image maker (Servais) and the image lover (Jacques), both emasculated by Nadine's fickle heart, their power games played with all the cards turned face up in each other's company. One particularly uncomfortable sequence features Jacques browbeating his wife in front of dinner guests (insulting her provincialism, breasts, and smoking habits) while Servais feebly observes, until Nadine accuses her accuser of being scared, calling his tactics embarrassing and useless. Who wields the power here? Is this marriage any less volatile than Nadine's potential relationship with a guy who is essentially owned by underworld heavies?
And if the important thing is simply to love, as the title states, is that enough to save anyone from a life of exploitation? Zulawski populates his world here with more lecherous sickos, fiendish weirdos and profound violence than the first few Brian De Palma features combined, but his is no cinematic exercise in B-movie revisionism. Zulawski mines the gutter for the frayed humanity in tortured souls, where aching passions still burn (albeit dimly) after being nearly crushed by fate and obligation.
The central trio of performances (aside from the otherworldly Kinski, who Zulawski grabbed for his turn as Hamlet, not "the funny Italian things he did, like the Spaghetti Westerns," as he says in the DVD's included interview) are all rendered in complex timbres, perhaps moreso because Schneider apparently loathed the cocksure Testi from the get-go. Bookended with another bloodied body and a "je t'aime" now deliberate and heartfelt, L'important c'est d'aimer pushes this potentially soap-operatic melodrama (on paper, the plot is hokily half-formed) into an expressionistic, even magisterial series of emotional outbursts. Perhaps the collaborative keystone, though, is Contempt composer Georges Delerue's unmistakably lyrical score. Inspired by the Fellini-friendly "grinding sound with a little vocal on top" of Nino Rota, Zulawski asked Delerue to work against his sensibilities, to craft something that could "slap against the screen." Schneider's very appearance prompts many of these ostentatious musical swoons, so why does any of this work? Well, why does love work?
[For further reading, check out Steven Boone's recent piece on Zulawski's Possession as compared to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn.]
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