Frank Thurston Green reviews the Zulawski retrospective at BAMcinématek, running through March 20th.
Andrzej Zulawski was born in 1940 in Lviv, Poland to a fancy family of diplomats and writers and, later, high level resistance conspirators. By the time Zulawski was five, Lviv, now part of Ukraine, was occupied twice by the Soviet military and once by the Third Reich. Between the Nazis and Soviets, two thirds of his family was murdered and his little sister starved to death.
Critics love to write about how insane Zulawski’s movies are. And it’s true that his movies flout narrative conventions and that his actors to give over-the-top performances. Not for nothing is the BAM retrospective called “Hysterical Excess.” But his movies aren’t about an insane world as much as insane people trapped within the small confines of their minds. His best movies are about toxic intimacy, about a person’s world shrunken to the dimensions of their loss. The insanity part comes when that shrunken world fills up again, when the traumatized person can’t see anything new, only mutated, rotted versions of what they had, like grandparents exhumed for a family portrait.
In his best work there are few characters, and the new ones that show up are often doppelgängers of the old ones, or else they show up the old fashioned way: they get born. There are no subplots; basically the same things happen over and over again—his movies have all the plot development of post-traumatic stress disorder. There are no reprieves from the narrow, warped prism of trauma.
There’s the revolutionary mourning a failed revolution (The Devil). There’s the woman who—tortured by her love for her son, running away from the abuse of her husband—births a thing all its own, a monster sired by her torment (Possession). There’s a man whose wife and son are murdered who, at great and raving length, fails to deal with the fact that his wife and child were murdered (The Third Part of the Night). These characters aren’t getting over it. It’s only a question of when the frantic rehashing of the original, rotten facts collapses, of when their little worlds implode.
The series Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrej Zulawski continues at BAM through March 20.