L'Important C'Eest D'Aimer

Polish-born director Andrzej Żuławski was a master at depicting worlds divorced from traditional moral order, whether the Nazi-occupied Poland of The Third Part of the Night (1971), the supernatural Berlin of Possession (1981), the strange planet of On the Silver Globe (1988), or the sweetly absurd universe of his final film, Cosmos (2015). Few filmmakers have rendered so palpably the experience of losing one’s grip on reality, and with the 1975 French drama L’Important C’Est D’Aimer, playing this week at Film Center in a new digital restoration, Żuławski marries this lifelong subject to a romantic sensibility unlike anything else in his body of work. The title can be translated as “the important thing is to love,” and Żuławski presents love as an all-consuming force, similar to madness or addiction. The film is deliberately overstylized—with outsize performances, lush music (by Georges Delerue), and delirious camera movements—yet the grandeur reflects the intensity of the characters’ experience.

Żuławski considers a relationship between two lost souls. Servais (Fabio Testi) is a former war photographer now shooting pornography and working for tabloid magazines; Nadine (Romy Schneider) is a onetime starlet now slumming in sexploitation films. Servais falls for Nadine after taking her picture on a movie set and, to prove his devotion, borrows money from the gangster who finances his porno shoots to produce an avant-garde staging of Richard III that will star Nadine and, she hopes, jump-start her career. During the production, Servais gets closer to the actress but keeps his beneficence a secret; he also gets to know her husband, a mentally unbalanced cinephile (pop singer Jacques Dutronc in one of his first serious roles) whom Nadine pities more than she loves. The growing attraction between Servais and Nadine comes to destroy all three characters, who regret how they’ve failed to live up to their ideals. They try to reclaim their dignity, but only too late, after the stage production flops and Servais is hunted down by the gangster.

Żuławski boldly mixes sensationalist elements with high art, defamiliarizing all of them. Scenes of Shakespeare follow S-M porno shoots; protestations of romantic yearning come between depictions of graphic violence. The director connects these disparate pieces with a uniform emotional potency; no matter what takes place onscreen, the characters respond with deep, sometimes terrifying feeling. Also shining through L’Important C’Est D’Aimer is a genuine sense that love enables us to transcend the most degrading experiences. Thanks in part to towering performances from Testi and Schneider, the film makes one believe that the characters’ love is a matter of life and death.  v