May 28, 2018

That Most Important Thing: Love

After a recent one-man Andrzej Żuławski marathon, I came to the somewhat ironical conclusion that the director’s (arguably) most accessible and aesthetically conventional film, L'important c'est d'aimer (1975) aka That Most Important Thing: Love aka The Main Thing Is to Love aka Nachtblende—a love story for the terminally lovesick and romantically nihilistic based on the novel La Nuit américaine by the film’s frog co-screenwriter Christopher Frank—is also one of his greatest and most immaculate accomplishments as an artist. Of course, like many of the director’s cinematic works, including his most popular and well known feature Possession (1981), the French-Italian-German coproduction deals with the timeless Żuławskian theme of ‘love as pain’ and the rather romantic notion of true love being a grave metaphysical affliction that can bring death and self-destruction, among other less than desirable things. Indeed, the sort of love depicted in a Żuławski flick is more deleteriously addictive and all-consuming in the poetic sense than the way poet and cine-magician Jean Cocteau described the eponymous narcotic in his classic text Opium: Diary of a Cure (1930). Of course, being a Żuławski flick, it is a cinematic work that practically redefines the romance film as it feels more fierce, frantic, violent, and fast-paced than the latest Hollywood action film, albeit non-retarded and packed with almost painfully penetrating pathos.  Additionally, only in Żuławski's film does the random anecdote, which is not even depicted onscreen, of a pathetic commie intellectual reciting Rimbaud as his last words on his deathbed become one of many so memorable moments, as if the auteur was able to fit three or four films into one.  Depicting a bizarre love triangle between a wash-up Austrian sexploitation actress, her exceedingly emasculated and perennially unemployed beta-male frog husband, and a French alpha-male photographer protagonist that is determined to make her his beloved, That Most Important Thing: Love is also a film about how women, including old and used up ones, can completely destroy men without even the slightest bit of effort or concern for the forsaken fellows that suffered the misfortune of falling in love with them. In short, the film brings a certain poetic truth to Friedrich Nieztche’s oftentimes quoted words, “Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent.” Unfortunately for the film’s male protagonist and the goofy guy he cuckolds, the heroine—played by Austrian diva Romy Schneider in a performance that would rightly earn her a ‘frog Oscar’ (aka César Award)—is too much of a sad solipsistic emotional mess of a woman to be too concerned with the fact that she is tearing up the souls of the two men that matter the most to her in life. 

 Admittedly, it felt somewhat like kismet when I recently watched That Most Important Thing: Love for the first time as I had a somewhat recent romantic experience that is, at least superficially, comparable to that of the protagonist. Indeed, I began a brief yet somewhat passionate romance with a girl that found herself unable to breakup with her longtime cuckold fiancé despite her completely sexless and largely pathetic relationship with him, as she could not break an old routine with a loser that she openly admitted that she was completely sexually disgusted with.  Incidentally, this same girl bears a superficial resemblance to Romy Schneider.  Needless to say, after watching the film and experiencing something similar firsthand, I have resolved to never ever again deal with a damaged dame that lacks the strength and decisiveness to stick with one man.  In the film, Schneider’s character—an ex-whore of sorts that makes a living flaunting her flesh in disreputable Jean Rollin-esque art-horror-erotica—feels obligated to stay completely faithful to her husband despite the fact that they have nil sex life and he is a weak and pathetic unemployed man that collects Hollywood publicity shots like some old queen-ish antique dealer. In short, the heroine—a woman that is clearly well past her prime in terms of pulchritude—finds herself practically creaming her pants at first sight when she meets the masculine alpha-male photographer protagonist played by Italian stallion Fabio Testi (who apparently was some sort of macho male bimbo in real-life), who makes the iconic character played by David Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni’s counterculture classic Blow-Up (1966) seem like a sapless Brit prick bitch pussy by comparison. Although a dark love story, it is also a film about broken people where no character is unforgettable but virtually every single one seems to have been either forgotten, disposed of, and/or beaten down by society. Set in a largely dark and dreary Parisian underworld inhabited by overly intellectual communist cuckolds, puritanical black market pornographers, megalomaniacal theater faggots, impotent cinephiles, childish gangsters, and other losers and freaks, That Most Important Thing: Love ultimately makes love seem like a painfully rare and important thing that demands great sacrifice due to the ugliness, failure, and stupidity that seems to consume most of humanity; or so one discover in the unforgettably zany Żuławskian realm. 

 In a somewhat incriminating interview included as an extra feature of the Mondo Vision DVD of That Most Important Thing: Love, Żuławski states, “It’s true that I’m more gripped by the characters who are perhaps good people at heart, but who end up going down a slippery slope, and don’t ever manage to fit into society.” Indeed, every single character in the film is a misfit of sorts that is connection to a group of misfits, including pornographers, theater poofs, and gangsters, yet Żuławski somehow manages to give most of these individuals a certain degree of humanity. Undoubtedly, the film’s tall, dark, and handsome protagonist, Servais Mont (Fabio Testi of Vittorio de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970))—a two-time war veteran and stoic yet not exactly sophisticated alpha-male of sorts—is the most seemingly normal of these characters and he is a fairly lonely guy with a drug addict bum for a father who makes his living taking pornographic photos involving such unsavory things as homo miscegenation involving muscular negroes and Brit tranny freaks with Isaac Asimov fetishes. At the very beginning of the film, Servais sneaks into a porno shoot to take bootleg photos of its female star Nadine Chevalier (Romy Schneider) straddling a bloodly corpse, but he is instantly taken aback when the failed actress stares directly at him and states to him while sobbing with a certain inordinate emotive intensity, “No photos please. I’m an actress, I do good stuff. I only do this to… to eat.” While Servais manages to escape from the film set with the snapshots after getting in a brawl with a couple film crew members and being kicked out of the production, he immediately becomes obsessed with Nadine to the point where he wastes no time in finding out where she lives and then randomly shows up there unannounced. Luckily for Servais, Nadine seems to be just as interested in him, but unfortunately she has certain moral obligations to her unemployed beta-boy husband Jacques Chevalier (musician turned actor Jacques Dutronc in his second acting role) and has also adopted a sort of self-stylized Puritanism as an assumed psychological defense mechanism due to her decidedly debasing career as an exploitation slut.  A childless c grade actress that lies multiple times to Servais by claiming she is only 30 even though she is clearly about a decade older and thus has very little sexual market value left to any man that is serious about having children, Nadine is clearly at a miserable place in her life, so naturally the handsome protagonist is very tempting to her.  Unfortunately, Nadine's husband is a serious obstacle, at least until he becomes seriously suicidal.

 While poor old Jacques is a seemingly impotent loser that cannot even bear to fuck his wife even when she is literally on her knees begging for it while repeatedly declaring “Fuck me!,” he certainly understands Nadine as indicated by his remark to Servais in regard to her seeming hypocritical occupation as a porn star, “Nadine does them but doesn’t like them because she’s a puritan. Understand that? She’s done everything and showed everything and is getting more and more puritanical. She discovered she had principles. Now, you can strip her of her pants, but not her principles. She couldn’t explain her principles. They’re just there…like rails and Nadine sticks to them even if they burn her feet like right now.” Of course, Jacques’ passive-aggressively expressed words reveal why Nadine is initially hesitant to engage in carnal passions with Servais despite their clear strong mutual attraction for one another. As a man that begrudgingly snaps shots of orgies for an elderly effete gangster he despises named ‘Mazelli’ (Claude Dauphin)—a reluctant pornographer that also happens to be a prissy little prude—Servais certainly has more in common with Nadine than a mere mutual attraction, as they are both individuals that really loathe their jobs because they are forced to routinely debase themselves just to get a paycheck. Two seemingly innately moral people that have been degraded by the demands and influences of a degenerate demonic world inhabited by freaks, faggots, and fucks-ups, Nadine and Servais seem like they could be soul mates in some ideal alternate universe, but they are ultimately trapped in a living nightmare of isolation, morbid melancholy, and just plain bad luck. Like her husband Jacques, who apparently acquired her love and affection by saving her from a self-destructive life of hedonism and whoredom, Servais wants to be Nadine’s own personal savior and decides to put himself in a precarious situation to accomplish that goal by borrowing a bunch of money from his much hated gangster ‘boss’ Marzelli so that he can financially back a play and thus secure his would-be-ladylove the prestigious lead female role of Lady Anne in an avant-garde theatrical production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Indeed, somewhat ironically, Servais gets sucked further into the slimy subterranean realm of pornography so that he can rescue Nadine, who initially has no clue that he is even responsible for getting her the role. 

On top of going into great debt and virtually selling his soul to a boss that he absolutely loathes, Servais also makes some other sacrifices to get Nadine the role in Richard III, including befriending a theater troupe of flaming fag degenerates that include an absurdly arrogant German aristocrat named Karl-Heinz Zimmer (Klaus Kinski) and his cross-dressing director pal named Laurent Messala (Guy Mairesse). In fact, despite the fact that he is clearly a rampantly heterosexual frog buck, Servais even attempts to convince Nadine that he is an old friend of queen Messala so that he has an excuse to hang around the rehearsals for Richard III and thus spend time with her. Of course, as a man with a criminal drug addict father (Roger Blin) that longs after mulattoes, Servais is not too picky with who he hangs out with, though he certainly has somewhat curious friends in general. To his minor discredit, the protagonist, who his own flaws and annoying idiosyncrasies, also has no problem cuckolding his best friend Raymond Lapade (Michel Robin)—an unhinged Marxist dork and all-around failed intellectual that, somewhat ironically, gives him romance advice and inspires his quest to get Nadine to play the lead in Richard III—even though he does not seem particularly fond of his beauteous wife Luce (Nicoletta Machiavelli) and quickly forgets about fucking her when Nadine enters the picture.  In fact, pussy does not seem to be something that is particularly hard for Servais to acquire as he also sleeps with a hot Vietnamese whore (Hong Kong model Sin May Zao), but all these fuck-buddies disappear when he falls in love Nadine.  When it comes down to it, Servais is ultimately a loner that does not seem particularly fond of his friends or fuck-buddies, thereupon making it all the more apparent that his obsessive love for Nadine is real and not simply some form of misguided infatuation.

Aside from also wanting to be her savior, Nadine’s pathetic husband Jacques is more or less the complete opposite of Servais in practically every way imaginable. Indeed, while Servais is tall, strong, stoic, hardworking, and seemingly humorless, Jacques is a short goofy cinephile that seems to be allergic to work and incessantly acts like a clown to the point where he literally sports clown make-up at one point in the film. While Jacques is completely financially supported by his wife, who cinematically peddles her puss for a living in trashy films with titles like Nymphocula, Servais is willing to go into extreme debt with an unsavory gangster he hates in the hope that he can simply make his seemingly perennially dejected would-be-lover happy.  In that sense, Servais is certainly the more ideal lover for Nadine, who has been forced to take on the sexually inverted role of breadwinner. While Jacques is a pathetically laughable loser that lives his life like it is one big joke because he seems to be quite conscious that he is a joke, he is certainly no moron and almost immediately realizes that Servais will soon replace him. Notably, in an attempt to rationalize her sad and pathetic marriage to an unemployed film dork, Nadine describes her dubious relationship with Jacques as follows to Servais, “I’m neither a victim nor a prisoner. My life is what it is even if you don’t think it adds up to much. About the ghost in my last play, six years ago. I married him and I love him.” Rather unfortunately for him and his wife, Jacques also refuses to fuck Nadine and it is hinted that he is all but completely impotent despite his worship of manly fictional heroes like Zorro and the Italian silent era cinema hero Maciste created by proto-fascist hero Gabriele d'Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone. Of course, it is obvious that Jacques lives in a fantasy world of cinema and superheroes because he needs to escape from his own miserable unmanly existence, hence his boyish reverence of Zorro and Maciste.  In short, Servais is the man that Jacques never was and everyone in the bizarre love triangle seems to be painfully aware of this, though the protagonist would never be so arrogant as to actually state this.

 Needless to say, Nadine is the only thing that Jacques has to live for, so naturally suicide becomes the only serious viable option when he poses to lose her. Indeed, when Nadine realizes that Servais must truly love her after he turns down her pussy when she offers it to him as payment after learning that he secretly funded the Richard III project so that she would secure the lead female role, Jacques also comes to the cold realization that his wife is hopelessly in love with a strong and protective man and she will be moving on. Right before killing himself, Jacques finally drops the pathetic clown routine and confronts Nadine in regard to her true feelings for him, stating, “You know what the lousiest thing is? The most disgusting. Pity. Because it’s terminal. I know what you think of me. Of all my bullshit. There’s a word for it. I found it in my leather bound and gilded dictionary. Contempt.” Jacques also tells Nadine, “I can do anything for you except… live,” so naturally he must die and he does so by intentionally overdosing on drugs in the bathroom of the very same restaurant where they had the intense post-breakup conversation only minutes before. In a sick and pathetically passive-aggressive twist, Jacques sets it up so that his replacement Servais is the first to discover his corpse in what is ultimately a most loathsomely craven attempt at revenge. While staring at Jacques' corpse at the morgue, Servais becomes emotionally erratic for the first time in the film, declares in front of Nadine, “What a jerk!” and then proceeds to scream in his ladylove’s face after she physically attacks him, “Why did he do it? He should have done it before! Before he met you! Why did he do it? He should have done it before knowing you! Do you understand?” 

 Love kills, or so one certainly learns at the end of the ultimately somewhat bitterly brutally titled That Most Important Thing: Love, which concludes with Jacques successfully committing suicide and Servais being beaten within an inch of his life by a motley crew of gangsters at the behest of his (ex)boss Marzelli. While Nadine finally tells Servais that she loves him and caresses his badly brutalized body, it remains to be seen whether or not the male protagonist survives the ordeal, though one can certainly see the two being happily married if he does; or at least as happy as two outcasts can be. For better or worse, Servais ultimately proved his dedication and paid a hefty price to be with Nadine, who initially let her sentimentalism for a spiritually castrated cinephile blind her from a very great future. On the other hand, the innate irrationality of heterosexual love seems completely sane when compared to the almost otherworldly narcissism and all-around megalomaniacal madness of the homosexual characters in the film, namely the kraut queen Karl-Heinz Zimmer as personified by the one and only Klaus Kinski. Indeed, after discovering that his play is a critical bomb, Karl-Heinz needs to repair his ego and thus decides to brutally beat a couple boorish heterosexual men and then, despite his fagdom, proceeds to take home said boorish heterosexual men’s women and fuck them in a threesome. Notably, before beating up the men under the dubious pretense of one of them touching his coat, Karl-Heinz states to them with a sort of exceedingly eloquent understated rage, “My overcoat, sir. You touched it […] I paid a lot for this overcoat! Since I’m a well-bred homosexual, I care a lot for my things. Silence. I don’t like your type. You touched me with your proletarian fingers.” Undoubtedly, as the film reveal, homosexual insanity makes lovelorn lunacy seem rather tame by comparison, especially in regard to Teutonic dick-downing dandies. 

 While That Most Important Thing: Love depicts female protagonist Nadine in a relatively favorable light, I cannot help but think of her husband’s suicide and be reminded of the H.L. Mencken quote, “No matter how much a woman loved a man, it would still give her a glow to see him commit suicide for her.” Indeed, as the popularity of websites and apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Tinder demonstrate, female narcissism and solipsism knows no bounds. Taking this into consideration, one cannot help but speculate Żuławski and source writer/co-screenwriter Christopher Frank’s intent as to why the fierce fag played by Kinski randomly declares, “Philosophically speaking, if you don’t count St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval period was a catastrophe but we owe it a certain conception of women’s dignity.” Of course, with his later film Possession, which could also be called That Most Insane Thing: Love, Żuławski would reveal a more cynical view of love and especially marriage. Additionally, in an interview included with the Mondo Vision Blu-ray release of the filmmaker’s somewhat neglected feature La note bleue (1991) aka The Blue Note—a film that depicts with an almost annoying degree of artistic license the bitter end of the romantic relationship between Polish composer Frédéric Chopin and pseudonymous French novelist George Sand— Żuławski concludes in regard to the real-life protagonist of his film, “After this day depicted. . .filmed. . . in LA NOTE BLEUE, he never wrote any kind of new music. He went through Europe, went to Scotland, went to England, went to…—while adding some notes here and retracting some notes there—and he died, which means for me only one thing; if you’re in a profound, real love relationship with somebody, be this somebody good or bad, you’ll die of it.” Naturally, Żuławski’s remark seems somewhat curious when one considers that he seems to have been fueled by the romantic ideal of ‘Liebestod,’ but then again maybe he never ever really experienced a “profound, real love relationship,” though I sincerely doubt it. After all, the auteur was in a long-term artistically fruitful romance with singular French beauty Sophie Marceau and one can only assumed he suffered greatly at some point in that relationship, hence the increasingly romantically nihilistic nature of his films. While That Most Important Thing: Love is indubitably a dark romance that concludes in a fittingly unsettling fashion, it ultimately seems like a sentimental rom-com when compared to the bloody bacchanalian brutality and Yandere insanity of Żuławski’s later Polish feature Szamanka (1996) aka She-Shaman.

Notably, Żuławski would state of the importance of That Most Important Thing: Love in the context of his entire filmmaking career, “It’s a film that has stayed very close to me, because of its humanity. The final feelings it leaves me with are very human, and not artificial.” Undoubtedly, the film features the auteur’s warmest and most sympathetic female character and not the sort of demonically possessed sort of bitches in his later works like Possession and Szamanka. Indeed, the film is ‘humanistic’ in the best sense of the word as a cinematic work where the scab of lovesick humanity is ruthlessly ripped off and the open wound is allowed to freely bleed into the viewer’s soul. After all, even when Nadine declares to Servais, “You see, you were right. A woman can always be bought. Whatever they say,” one cannot help but respect the vulnerability in her honesty and I say that as someone that finds poetry in the words of Otto Weininger.  Rather embarrassingly, I am not really familiar with much of Romy Schneider's work, but she certainly reveals in Żuławski's film that she was the height of feminine elegance and the sort of actress that seems painfully nonexistent nowadays.  While Schneider's character Nadine might be a porno whore that is certainly long past her peak in terms of pulchritude and fertility, I think it is safe to say that many men, including myself, long to be with a women of such bargain bin diva divinity.

Romantic intrigues aside, the film also carries a very important message about the tragedy of true individuality in a socially oppressive world were both literal and figurative serfdom and whoredom seems to be the norm.  Indeed, while his eccentric entourage of eclectic goons are brutally beating Servais to a bloody pulp at the end of the film, villain Marzelli exposes his own personal Weltanschauung and declares to the protagonist, “You know kid, normally people like us don’t exist. I know it but I’m the only one. Each morning when I see myself, I say: ‘this is not real.’ So, since we don’t exist we must find a way to be accepted, right? That’s what you’re doing now. You’re accepting.” Considering Marzelli's words, one can only come to the conclusion that That Most Important Thing: Love is a film about accepting the fact that life sucks and then you die, but if you're lucky you might snag a Romy Schneider-tier babe at some point during your miserable existence.

-Ty E

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