I was hooked on Andrzej Żuławski from the first moments of Possession. Isabelle Adjani’s performance, dialed up to unprecedented levels of hysteria, felt like the incarnation of my biggest fears. My skin crawled with her as she battled with demons both literal and internal, as she struggled desperately to find her humanity. So unlike any kind of film I’ve ever watched before, there was no way for me to guess that the filmmaker who would best represent my heart, moods and anxieties would be an idiosyncratic Polish man born during World War II. His filmmaking, reflecting both his tumultuous political situation and troubled relationships, reached and achieved a level of religious ecstasy (as described in the Bible) that I had always supposed was a myth.
Żuławski always excelled in portraying the madness of women, as if our anxieties related to love, sex and identity could be injected and streamlined directly into the bloodstream he channeled to the hidden part of the soul within his actors. He never met me, I never knew him, but whether I was watching Adjani, Sophie Marceau or Romy Schneider, it might as well have been me up on screen. Even now, though, I can’t imagine ever letting myself be laid so bare in front of an audience. That true self I see in his images are parts of myself that I never allow to escape, that I would never dream of showing the world. I’m not even sure if I’m capable of sharing that part of who I am, and how I feel. That is Żuławski’s miracle.
To this day, Possession remains my favourite of his works, but each one of Żuławski’s films holds a touch of magic. They feel forged of something deeper and darker than any filmmaker before or since, it’s that chaos magick that Kenneth Anger talks about: that intimate and willful power to control, dominate and exorcise the world around you. The balance of Żuławski’s work was always this struggle between the chaotic realm of nature and the irrational aspiration to reason we all seem to hold in our hearts. Even in his last film, Cosmos, which is perhaps his most dense and least emotive work, it is also his most comedic. I wrote about it for Vague Visages at Locarno, and while I still don’t consider it my favourite Żuławski film, in light of his death, the levity that troubled me in the film actually feels almost redemptive. The mystery of a hanged bird, who had no means of hanging himself, feels now like a confrontation with a higher power and an acceptance that our death is inescapable. Since the director was likely sick during the production, the aftermath of the film’s comic absurdism feels refreshing and accepting in the face of death, at the very least.
In the past couple of decades, Żuławski wasn’t a prolific filmmaker, but his legacy remains strong. Looking back at my experience in Locarno, we went around the room to talk about our most anticipated films, and no less than three people out of 10 named Cosmos. Żuławski’s influence still holds incredible weight, his work modern in how out of time it is. The hysterical approach, matched only by David Lynch, touches on something brutally primal and eternal.
I’m eager to go back and re-watch Żuławski’s films and discover the handful of his works I’ve still yet to see. I want to go through the woods and dance again with The Devil. Recently married, I want to revisit Possession for the umpteenth time, in light of my new fears that come with that huge leap in life, that anguished cry of Adjani, still echoing in my heart, relit like a dying flame. I want to channel the fierce, terrified confidence of Ethel in La femme publique; I want to embrace that part of myself that I feel so compelled to hide. Żuławski gave me that allowance, he gave me permission to feel even when it didn’t make sense. He was the director who opened up the world and made me feel a part of something greater. I will be forever thankful to him and only wish that his legacy continues to live on. I wish love and peace to his family and friends, and the same to everyone whose life he touched. I hope others find solace and comfort in his work, as we are all living in a stalled anguish, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.