Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski’s most highly acclaimed film was recently screened for several weeks at the Quad Cinema here in New York City and, as soon as I realized this was not only a revival and a newly restored version, but the first U.S. theatrical release of the original French language film, I was quite excited to finally see L’Important C’est d’Aimer in its entirety. Zulawski (who passed away at the age of seventy-five in 2016) is most well-known for his avant-garde films that deal heavily with complicated male/female relationships as well as psychological turmoil (and sometimes with issues stemming from a more supernatural force i.e., 1981’s Possession starring Isabelle Adjani in a role that deeply affected her years after filming wrapped).
Zulawski’s 1975 film, L’Important C’est d’Aimer (the English title chosen for the restoration is The Importance of Loving, although it doesn’t directly translate) is probably most well-remembered for Romy Schneider in the lead as Nadine (she won the Best Actress César Award for the role). Even after all these years, her fragile beauty is as captivating on screen as ever, if not more so. Schneider’s character Nadine works as an actress starring in sleazy B-movies that specialize in soft-core pornography: the plotlines deal with hyper-sexual castle-dwelling midget lesbians (this is mentioned in a delightful moment when we’re introduced to Klaus Kinski’s character, Karl Heinz-Zimmer). Kinski is as charming and as whacky as ever as an independently wealthy but failed actor. Although his character is a flamboyant (and, at times, violently so) homosexual, he has orgies with female prostitutes while crying in the aftermath amidst crumpled bedsheets, naked bodies and large windows overlooking the streets of Paris. It isn’t enough to weep in a Zulawski film: one must cry with makeup running down their face in tar-black rivulets.
Schneider’s character, Nadine is married to a verbally abusive man played by Jacques Dutronc (who later commits suicide by swallowing fistfuls of pills and, most likely, rat poison) to whom she has moral obligations (he “saved” her from a wild, dangerous past) but she begins to fall in love with a new man, Servais Mont (played by Fabio Testi) who has an unquenchable interest in her and her career. Servais borrows money from loan sharks to finance a stage production of Richard III in which Nadine will star as Lady Anne. Of course, the play turns out to be a flop but his steadfast loyalty never wavers, even after he’s nearly beaten to death by those he must repay.
The film begins with Schneider on the set of her latest movie (note the meta-fictitious angle of a film within a film). Her face made up with false eyelashes, penciled-in eyebrows and perfectly pink lips, and her svelte figure clad in nothing but a silky negligée, she almost floats in front of the camera. Schneider’s job as Nadine the actress is to tell her dying lover—while becoming sexually aroused, no less—that she loves him. All of this is happening with a female director shouting in the background and crew members literally pouring fun blood on the actor portraying her lover. As Schneider straddles the actor’s hips and attempts to say “Je t’aime,” she hesitates. She notices a man (Fabio Testi as Servais) taking still photographs when he shouldn’t so she asks him to stop; she tries to vindicate herself by saying that she only takes these roles so that she can eat, and then she cries some of the most beautiful, mascara-drenched tears I’ve ever seen on screen.
After Nadine’s marriage has collapsed, she visits Servais and, as he’s badly beaten from former scorned cohorts, she kneels over him and is finally able to say: “Je t’aime.” The film ends and we see that this scene mirrors the beginning of the film but, instead of the characters acting on a film set, this is real life and authentic love. Because of the belief Servais had in Nadine, she is finally able to say “I love you” without hesitation. After this full-circle ending, we’re left, as the viewer, with startling, transgressive images of a beautiful woman who lacks self-worth, a nude Klaus Kinski in bed with prostitutes, seedy orgies that could only take place in 1970’s Paris, a dying man writhing on a bathroom floor in agony and lots of fake blood. If these images of depravity, sadness and love aren’t enough, we’re moved by two characters coming together and finally admitting what’s most important: that they love each other. We are also confronted with meta-fictitious filmmaking (which is rare), melodrama at its finest and, as far as any aesthete is concerned—as long as the camera is closed-in on Romy Schneider’s face as Georges Delerue’s score soars over the soundtrack— heartbreaking beauty.