Monday, August 18, 2008


For a couple of years now, I have resisted seeing Andrzej Zulawski's THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE [L'important c'est l'aimer, 1975] a second time, because I was afraid that it wouldn't -- couldn't possibly -- live up to my recollection of it. Sometimes the oddest films can seem like masterpieces because you happen to see them under a certain phase of the moon. I can well remember seeing Alan Rudolph's TROUBLE IN MIND for the first time on cable and hugging a pillow more and more tightly to me as the story advanced... and seeing it again, some time later, and wondering what the hell had captivated me so the first time around. But yesterday, the time came to put my feelings about Zulawski's film to the test, and I'm pleased to say that it is the masterpiece my earlier viewing suggested it was. I like Zulawski's work more often than not, but this film I find the most spellbinding of them all, due in no small part to the central performance of Romy Schneider, without whose beauty and gravity at its core I suspect the entire zany, enraptured film might collapse like a house of cards.

She plays a 30-year old B-movie actress fallen on hard times, a once-promising talent whose career has nose-dived into pornography ("NYMPHACULA" is one of the fictional movies she's supposed to have done), drugs, prostitution and a marriage to a deranged admirer that seems more like captivity. A paparazzi (Fabio Testi) tries to score a photo of her, is beaten up for his troubles, but she takes amused pity on him when he persists and promises that he can sell better shots as magazine covers. Thus begins one of the most peculiar and affecting love stories I've ever seen, rooted in Testi's earnest belief that, if he intrudes into this woman's life (as he feels he must), things may end badly, but that if he doesn't, they will certainly end much worse.

The movie's effectiveness boils entirely down to the chemistry between these two. It's mysterious, captivating, utterly convincing and never quite explained. It's not a sexual relationship, though the offer is on the table and the tension is palpable between them, enough to sometimes send her pitiable husband (Jacques Dutronc) out of the room when they are brought back into each other's orbit. My theory about Testi's reticence is that he knows that what this woman needs in her disintegrating life, much more than another lover, is a friend -- and he rises above his own urges, and her own cruel and self-destructive taunting, to provide that.

The trouble with THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE is that, for all of its strange magic to kick in, in order to hear its actual heartbeat, you have to watch it in French. It's the live sound option, the one that was recorded as these performances were given (except for Testi, who is post-synched but effectively so), and this is particularly vital to appreciating Schneider's luminous yet ashen performance -- which she considered to be her own best work, and which won her the very first C├ęsar Award for Best Actress in 1975. (Schneider died at age 43 in 1982, officially of a heart attack, though she was known to have been inconsolable and increasingly dependent on pills and alcohol following the accidental death of her 14 year-old son the previous year. There are currently two different films about her life in production, a feature and a TV movie, respectively starring Yvonne Catterfield and Jessica Schwarz, both remarkable look-alikes.) Unfortunately, while the French version of Zulawski's film is available on DVD, it comes with no English subtitle option. I've only seen that version shown once on the Sundance Channel, as part of a tribute to the late, great Z Channel -- and I prize my DVD-R of that broadcast. A German import from New Entertainment World also exists called NACHTBLENDE (meaning "Day for Night," oddly enough, a translation of the title of the Christopher Frank novel LA NUIT AMERICAIN on which the film is based), which contains audio options in French, German and English -- but only German subtitles are provided. The English dub is kind of heroic in many respects, but cannot help but occupy a much lower level than the exalted plane of the French version.

I failed to mention that it also stars Klaus Kinski, giving one of his most tortured, incandescent and emotional performances. Reason enough to see any movie, but an "also ran" here.
This German disc is available from Xploited Cinema with a choice of three different clamshell covers, based on the German and Belgian poster art. The Belgian poster cover is priced slightly higher and represents a limited edition of only 999 copies. If interested, I would hurry because Xploited has announced their intention to retire from activity and will not be reordering any discs once their current supply expires. Furthermore, the under-construction website of a new company called Mondo-Vision has announced L'important c'est l'aimer as one of three Zulawski pictures on their roster of upcoming releases, but offers no information about its release date or language/subtitle options.
I'm inclined to promote THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE to my Top Ten; that's how strongly I feel about it. I'm going to watch the French version again before I decide. If the German disc is your only means of seeing the film, go for it. It's unlikely that any other issue is going to outperform it in terms of extras, which include PC exclusives as well as Georges Delerue's haunting soundtrack in its five-track entirety. The track called "Largo" is as close as the Maestro ever came to recapturing the tortured gravitas of his unforgettable tragic theme for Godard's CONTEMPT, which happens to be a key word in the screenplay of this film. My fuller review of THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE will appear in VIDEO WATCHDOG #144, now in production.

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