Andrzej Zulawski, a Polish director who spent most of his professional life in France after irking the Communist government at home, died Feb. 17 after a long struggle with cancer. He was 75.
Zulawski was known for an idiosyncratic approach to storytelling and films characterized by “explosions of violence, sexuality, and despair,” according to website Culture.pl, which also noted that “the vision of the world portrayed in his films has been described as tragic, shocking and hysterical”; his methods yielded from actresses including Romy Schneider, Isabelle Adjani and Sophie Marceau some of the best performances of their careers.
Zulawski’s son Xawery, himself a film director, wrote on Facebook late Tuesday that his father was “terminally ill with cancer and undergoing intensive therapy in hospital in Poland.” Fox Lorber announced acquiring all North American rights to his final feature, “Cosmos,” which premiered in competition at the Locarno Film Festival, where Zulawski was awarded best director.
Many had considered Zulawski’s career finished after the commercial failure of 2000’s “Fidelity,” sparking something of a reassessment from a new generation of critics with the release of “Cosmos,” of which Variety said: “Spinning a web of erotic and psychological intrigue, Polish provocateur Andrzej Zulawski dares audiences to make sense of his first film in 15 years. Knowing what to expect, Zulawski fans have been waiting since 2000’s ‘Fidelity’ for just this chance to be left dangling, whereas mainstream auds would sooner stick to more conventional entertainments.”
Zulawski was born in Lvov, Ukraine, but moved with his father Miroslaw to Czechoslovakia and later to Poland. He studied cinema in France in the late 1950s; in the 1960s, he served as an assistant to Polish film director Andrzej Wajda. He made his feature directorial debut in 1971 with “The Third Part of the Night (1971), an adaptation of his father’s novel.
Like Poland’s answer to David Cronenberg, the cult director was most prolific during the 1980s for a series of erotically charged psycho-sexual provocations that pushed the limits of how relationships were depicted onscreen — although it was the critical and commercial success of his 1975 adaptation of Christopher Frank’s novel, “That Most Important Thing: Love,” that cemented Zulawski’s place as a French auteur. (Pedro Almodovar was so affected by Romy Schneider’s Cesar-winning performance in that film that he later dedicated “All About My Mother” not only to Schneider, but “To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother.”)
By that point, Zulawski had fled Poland, where communist authorities arrested him and censored his politically charged horror film “The Devil” in 1972. After the success of “Love,” the director was invited back to make a film of his choice, but a power shift in Poland’s cultural affairs ministry put his work in jeopardy: Deep into production, “On the Silver Globe” was abruptly halted and all materials were ordered to be destroyed (fortunately, the footage survived and was reconstructed in 1988).
After these dual disappointments in his native country, Zulawski opted to tackle what would become one of cinema’s most violent and disturbing portrayals of a disintegrating marriage, triggered by a wife’s demand for divorce: “Possession.” Lensed in Berlin, the controversial English-language thriller — which Zulawski doubly intended as a critique of communism — premiered in competition at the 1981 Cannes film festival, where Isabelle Adjani earned best actress honors, recognized for her roles in both “Possession” and Merchant Ivory’s infinitely tamer “Quartet” (the only time the prize has acknowledged an actress’ work in two films).
An insatiable reader, Zulawski derived most of his work from novels, seeking to find the depth of psychology and metaphysical investigation in cinema that had previously only been achieved by literature — or perhaps painting — as reflected in 1985’s “Mad Love,” a wild reimagining of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” that marked his first collaboration with future wife Sophie Marceau.
Even those films that weren’t labeled as overt adaptations turned out to be densely laced with ideas from and references to ambitious modern writers, to the extent that a full appreciation of Zulawski’s work practically demands a graduate degree, or else reams of footnotes and supplemental reading.
Though Zulawski’s work had a capacity to disturb audiences, frequently toying with the very notion of perversity, it also displayed a wicked sense of humor. He used literary allusions like in-jokes, and never worked in strictly literal terms — as evidenced by the illusion-shattering behind-the-scenes footage that runs over the end credits of “Cosmos,” during which he invites audiences to examine the artifice of the filmmaking process.
In addition to son Xawery, he is survived by a son, Vincent, that he had with actress Marceau in 1995.
(Peter Debruge contributed to this report.)