Exiled by his native Poland after his contentious films caused many clashes with the Polish government, filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski repaired to France where his career would take on nearly meteoric proportions. His first work in France was the moodily dramatic and burgundy-tinted L'important C'est D'aimer, a hit in 1975 with the French – and the film that put him back in good graces with the Polish authorities.
Żuławski didn't have to work too hard to secure the film's leading actress, the eternally sublime Romy Schneider; she had decided that, upon seeing the filmmaker's 1972 horror-drama The Third Part of the Night, she was going to work with him, one way or another. Anyone familiar with the late Żuławski might understand Schneider's desire to work with the notoriously demanding director; she had been working assiduously to shed her Sissi image, a beloved character she played in a series of Austrian films.
Schneider had already proven her worth as an actress of substance; the Austrian native's work with French director Claude Sautet (she became his muse of sorts) established her among the French as one of their own and helped to transition her into mature, adult roles. Looking for a challenge to push her to her limits, Schneider singled out Żuławski for the task.
Based on a little-known novel by Christopher Frank, L'important C'est D'aimer is a film very much of its time: a chamber drama drenched by the soapy washes of romance, usually the preserve of '70s cinema. Co-starring Fabio Testi and Jacques Dutronc, (Schneider, the fixed figurehead of the trio), L'important C'est D'aimer begins on a highly metafilmic note, in which a beautiful actress, brought to her knees, is unceremoniously degraded before a filmmaker.
Nadine (Schneider) is an unfortunate actress of exploitation films that are brokered by her miserable husband. Forced to eke out a meagre living on such suspect material, Nadine reluctantly complies. Meanwhile, Servais (Testi), a down-on-his-luck photographer, takes a liking to the long-suffering actress. Upon a humiliating introduction during one of Nadine's scene's on set, he endeavors to do her a good turn.
Servais' plan is to finance a stage production of Richard III, in which Nadine will have a prominent role. In order to put on the production, Servais must appeal to a number of loan sharks who will provide him the money. Meanwhile, Nadine's husband Jacques (Dutronc) becomes wise to Servais' affections toward his wife, and thus, his suicidal tendencies rise to a mountainous peak. Nadine, unskilled through a lack of any meaningful acting experience, doesn't have the range to pull off such a demanding, difficult role in Richard III. Just as her marriage to Jacques begins to unravel, the loan sharks come looking for Servais and all bonds of love are stretched to their breaking point.
Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. Even in the furious storms of rage and frustration there's the studied gaze of a filmmaker who understands well the ruinous lifestyles of those indebted to show business. That he had chosen Schneider as his vehicle for a washed-up star says something about his judicious choices as a filmmaker. There could never have been a more glamorous and beloved star as Schneider was at the time, and her degradation on screen makes her portrayal of a waning star all the more heartbreaking to watch. Schneider fights to withhold her actorly decorum, then artfully relinquishes it only when the negative spaces around her threaten to overwhelm her – a design Żuławski practices with a stern and unforgiving hand. Schneider would be the first actress to win the French César award for her role in this film.
Testi, at the time, was Italy's action-hero heartthrob who, according to Żuławski, was seriously disliked by Schneider (the Italian producers involved in this French-Italian production insisted on his casting). Here, he manages a good amount of restraint and cuts a respectable love-interest figure, softly pining for Schneider without moving into histrionics (which is the norm for a Żuławski film). Testi's decidedly measured portrayal is seemingly, in contrast, buoyed by the sleepy turn by Dutronc, whose Jacques is a catatonic zombie hovering creepily in the margins like a quietly damnable presence. Together, these three actors galvanize the drama in shapely baroque gestures that sweep through the frames with handsome motion.
What makes L'important C'est D'aimer such an absorbing watch is the way in which Żuławski deliberately misses obvious cues to circumvent clichés. There are no true hot spots of right and wrong here, of love and hate; with his itinerant camera, the director simply glides in toward the danger zones before narrowly skirting away from the points of eruptive action. Żuławski's roving camera stalks, prowls and swoops around the premises like an unsolicited visitor, capturing moments of beauty in the braising storms of such ugliness.
At all times, a taste of anxiety fills our mouths, a brimming rush of dread our hearts. In the turning madness, actors are fetchingly framed, often bemused constituents in the ensuing chaos. Such is the work of Żuławski, who has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves. The hothouse melodrama boils to near uncomfortable temperatures, but the dreamlike language, in which the characters communicate with one another, roots us in merely a concept of love; the action, danger, and drama never really touch us, though we feel its heat just inches away. It is a voyeurism of perversity as only Żuławski knows it and, helmed by the powerfully nuanced performance from Schneider, his film becomes a cathartic experience in watching people pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
* * *
Film Movement's Blu-ray release of L'important C'est D'aimer is a most welcome addition to their film roster, if not the most definitive release of the film. Mondo Vision released this film on DVD in 2009 in a deluxe package that included a host of supplements, as well as an extensive essay booklet and a CD soundtrack. Film Movement has a slight edge, in that theirs is a Blu-ray edition and, therefore, has the better transfer. Though there is some noticeable flicker here and there, and at times the colours seem a little muted, the picture is saturated with many deep and rusted rococo hues, contained nicely by the clean, clear transfer.
There's an interview feature with Żuławski presented as a supplement here (a port from the original Mondo Vision release), as well as a small essay liner note that breaks down the film thoughtfully. The film is in French with optional English subtitles. Sound, in fact, is an important feature of this film; Film Movement's transfer offers clear dialogue and a rich soundtrack that's evenly mixed.
Georges Delerue's score is the blood that pulses through the film, investing the characters with soul and spirit when it appears that they can't go on any longer. It lingers poignantly long after the film ends and reminds us that, when she left the world too soon, cinematic splendor died with Romy Schneider.