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Review: L’Important c’est d’aimer

(Andrzej Zulawski, France, Rialto Pictures, Opens July 14)

The films of Andrzej Zulawski, who died in February 2016, have been slow to receive theatrical runs in America, leaving him still one of the more overlooked European auteurs. His 1975 tragicomedy L’Important c’est d’aimer was a César-winning success in France, putting Zulawski back on his feet after a period of gloom following the failure of The Devil. Yet at the time it was shown in the U.S. in a dubbed version as That Most Important Thing: Love. The French-language original makes its debut U.S. theatrical engagement only now (under its French title and on Bastille Day, no less). This passionate portrait of the dignity—and the indignities—of an actor’s work is one of his best films.

“I do work to eat,” says Romy Schneider, who plays Nadine Chevalier, a porcelain-skinned beauty whose girlish face is starting to show signs of age, and whose  best roles are behind her. Nadine, eager to prove her dramatic talent, has nevertheless been reduced to starring in softcore films. When Servais (Fabio Testi) is hired to photograph her, he sneaks onto a film shoot to capture her unaware. The crew roughs him up, and Nadine arranges a formal shoot, without makeup. The gesture suggests she is willing to expose herself, but the mask of her public face—one of Zulawski’s favorite themes—is too ingrained for her to be entirely genuine.

To salvage Nadine’s career, which has suffered at the hands of her dilettantish husband-impresario, Jacques (Jacques Dutronc), the smitten Servais convinces a washed-up theater director, Karl-Heinz Zimmer (a genuinely bizarro cameo by Klaus Kinski), to cast Nadine in a play. What follows is a descent into a burlesque theater world, with characters and settings that recall the decadent Europe of George Grosz. When the play turns out to be a miserable flop, Zulawski’s sardonic humor reaches its peak, eviscerating mediocrity that poses as genius. Schneider plays the fickle and vain Nadine with unparalleled poise. In turn, Zulawski’s fluid, roving camera, favoring medium shots and close-ups, and accompanied by Georges Delerue’s full-throated score, is so attentive to every pang, twinge, or slightest hint of agony that it seems to expose the characters’ every nerve.

Zulawski’s films have not been kind to women. It suffices to mention Possession, which, while a stunning film that has lost none of its edge, clearly uses a female figure as a vehicle to expose sexual passion’s ugly core. Isabelle Adjani’s self-flagellating role is fit for a film about love that turns to hate. That Most Important Thing: Love, as the title suggests, is much gentler. In it, love wounds and exposes, but it can also heal. And it stirs us to make immense sacrifices. First Servais risks his life borrowing money from the porn underworld (for which he occasionally shoots), and then Jacques, whom Dutronc imbues with tragic zaniness reminiscent of Godard’s Pierrot le fou, ends his life to free Nadine from the burden of their marriage.

Thus the film is about the maturing of love, but also about love spent. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching scene is Nadine and Jacques’s breakup at a café—the married couple picks a public space to air out unbearable truths. Can love survive without desire? In Zulawski’s film, it can’t. The filmmaker links sexual passion to artistic drive. Love is not just an end but also the engine that makes creation possible. Hence the desperation of Zulawski’s characters—their debilitating fear of being robbed of the spark. In one scene, Karl-Heinz, who believes Nadine hasn’t given her all in rehearsal, demands that Jacques crawl into a coffin and pretend he’s dead. Jacques’s rehearsal of his own death is eerie; it also suggests the lengths to which a desperate artist may go for inspiration. Nadine revolts at being manipulated, but the director—to an extent, a stand-in for Zulawski—prevails.

Power is inseparable from love and art, and poisons both. Servais and Nadine attract and repel each other for as long as they worry who might get the upper hand. Only in the finale, in which Zulawski hushes the farcical undertones, do the two lovers finally reveal themselves as they are—fearful, hurt, confused, vulnerable—and affirm that love, mature love, can flourish.

Ela Bittencourt works as a critic and programmer in the U.S. and Brazil.