Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Andrzej Zulawski: Proceed with Caution

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A master of extreme, sexually charged cinema Andrzej Żuławski can variously suggest John Cassavetes, Alexandro Jodorowsky, and Dario Argento, but he’s more disturbing than any of them—and pretty much sui generis. BAMcinématek’s “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski,” featuring all 12 of the unclassifiable Polish auteur’s features, opens tomorrow Wednesday, March 7, with his hallucinatory first feature, “The Third Part of the Night” (1971)—also showing Friday, March 9, in Los Angles where Cinefamily’s parallel retro “The Unbelievable Genius of Andrzej Zulawski” is already underway.

“The Third Part of the Night” draws on the wartime experience of Żuławski’s parents in Lvov during the massacres and deportations of World War II. The filmmaker’s father (among other Polish intellectuals) was used as a breeding ground for typhoid-infected lice (making his blood the source for a serum); it’s something shown quite graphically in the film which often has the feel of early Cronenberg body horror. When I interviewed Żuławski for the New York Times, I asked him what he thought of his former colleague Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness”, another harrowing account of German-occupied Lvov, he replied quite precisely, “I have no interest in going there.” Żuławski has his own hell.

My colleague and guru on most things Polish, Michał Oleszczyk writes that “released to a nationwide response of shock and awe in early 1972, [“Third Part of the Night”] seemed like an ominous comet zapping through the gray sky of Polish cinema.” Still, it was mild compared to what would follow. I haven’t seen “Blue Note” (1991), a period piece about Chopin that, showing Thursday, BAM describes as Żuławski’s “lightest and most conventional” film but Friday’s “The Most Important Thing: Love” (1975), the first movie he made in France after having been invited to leave Poland, is a story of romantic obsession at once unspeakably sordid and unexpectedly transcendent, with a stunning performance by the normally limited Romy Schneider as a washed up actress. (It’s also an absolute must for Klaus Kinski fans.)

The weekend brings Zulawski s most notorious movie, the 1981 Isabel Adjani vehicle “Possession”, a true shocker which I reviewed for the Village Voice, along with Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” when it opened for a limited run at Film Forum last fall (it’s currently showing in L.A. through March 7); hangover Monday is devoted to “Shaman” (1996), nearly as grueling and the last movie Zulawski would make in his native land—a sort of “Last Tango in Paris” as reconceived for whatever Baltic tribes inhabited prehistoric Poland. (There’s a discussion of it in the Times piece.) Forewarned is forearmed. More tips next week.

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