×

Andrzej Zulawski, Polish Director, Dies at 75

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.)

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Sony Pictures: 'We Are Disappointed' by

    Sony 'Disappointed' by Disney's Divorce on 'Spider-Man' Projects

    Sony Pictures has gone public over its divorce with Disney on future “Spider-Man” projects. In a rare public rebuke to Disney, Sony announced Tuesday night that it was “disappointed” over the decision, highlighting Disney’s refusal to allow Marvel President Kevin Feige to continue as a producer on the projects. It also praised Feige, who teamed [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    ‘Good Boys’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Universal Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Good Boys.” Ads placed for the comedy had an estimated media value of $4.42 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Demi Lovato

    Demi Lovato Joins Netflix Comedy 'Eurovision'

    Demi Lovato has joined the upcoming Netflix comedy film “Eurovision.” Will Ferrell, who co-wrote the film with Andrew Steele, announced the news Tuesday with an Instagram post, in which he wished Lovato a happy birthday with a “homemade” cake. Following the announcement, Lovato can be seen blowing out candles on the cake next to a “Eurovision” [...]

  • Rob Schneider'The Week Of' film premiere,

    Film News Roundup: Rob Schneider Wins SAG-AFTRA National Board Seat

    In today’s film news roundup, Rob Schneider wins a SAG-AFTRA board seat; “Badland,” “Sorry We Missed You” and “Extracurricular” find homes; and “The Shawshank Redemption” gets a re-release.  SAG-AFTRA Rob Schneider has won a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Schneider won a four-year term [...]

  • This photo shows actor David Oyelowo

    David Oyelowo Joins George Clooney in 'Good Morning, Midnight' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    David Oyelowo is in final negotiations to join George Clooney in Netflix’s untitled adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” sources tell Variety. Felicity Jones and Kyle Chandler are also on board, with Clooney set to helm the pic — his first feature film directing gig since 2017’s “Suburbicon.” “The Revenant” screenwriter Mark [...]

  • Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the

    Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the Window'

    Disney is shaking up its release calendar, delaying its live action “Cruella” until Memorial Day 2021 and pushing Fox 2000 drama “The Woman in the Window” to 2020. “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone, is based on the classic “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil. The revisit to Disney’s animated classic was originally set to hit theaters [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content