Cameras and microphones close in. The scene quakes. The directorial orders become increasingly shrill. But the actress stays emotionless. She cannot bring herself to feel under such circumstances.
That Most Important Thing: Love is a movie made of moments like these, moments wherein desires are clear but cannot be met as a result of one’s disaffection with themselves. The characters know what they want and are aware of what their relationships with one another should look like. And yet they always fall short of achieving what they’re so hungry for, often incapable of building on the passion they feel.
Its aforementioned leading lady is Nadine Chevalier (Romy Schneider), a B-movie actress who dreams of achieving the respectability of Catherine Deneuve but will never come close to touching such renown. “I only do this to eat!” she clarifies to an onlooker on the set of a soft core vampire movie in which she’s starring. Her husband (Jacques Dutronc), to whom she’s been married for six years, is a cinephile whose idyll is attaining the heightened distinction of a film historian, but will never be much more than a desperate film fan. The film’s tertiary protagonist, photographer Servais Mont (Fabio Testi), yearns for reputable work for fashion magazines, but is instead stuck drudging around for an organized crime syndicate that specializes in the distribution of pornography.
These characters are also ensnared in a love triangle. Mont and Mrs. Chevalier’s first meeting coincidentally takes place on that earlier mentioned film set, wherein he’s trying to gain legitimate work. He’s kicked off the production as an effect of his refusal to gain proper access, but he nonetheless barges back into the actress’s life when he requests she participate in a quasi-photoshoot to possibly use as a cover for a film magazine. She takes a liking to him, and eventually the two start not a love affair but rather a mutual obsession: Mont privately funds a project that could bring Mrs. Chevalier the notoriety she’s looking for, and the latter continues to romantically antagonize Mont as a possible escape from her dulled marriage.
But none of the relationships in That Most Important Thing: Love feel conventional because these characters are so crippled by their own hang-ups. They’re so self-hating, so unsure of themselves, that they’d rather continue wallowing in their despair than try to make something of it. By the time the central Mrs. Chevalier finally decides what she wants, it is already too late: one man has died, the other has been brutally beaten. (Which she discovers during the movie’s last few minutes, mirroring the film’s opening scene.)
What Żuławski is trying to achieve with That Most Important Thing: Love is dicey. His ideas are provocative, his characters gripping, his performers are incendiary. But none of these things are ever pinned down by the compelling narrative necessary to make all the erraticism flourish. Żuławski, whose filmography is famous for its uniformly rabid energy, has said that the feature never felt like his own, given that understatement is often just as prolific as bewilderment in the movie.
But when the film’s anxieties are heightened, it’s at its most enthralling. Klaus Kinski, as an unhinged actor participating in one of Mrs. Chevalier’s plays, steals scenes if only because he’s so uninhibited. Schneider’s performance is melodramatically emotive, sometimes echoing the remarkable courageousness of Isabelle Adjani in Żuławski’s 1981 masterpiece Possession. Dutronc is equal parts cockeyedly funny and heartbreakingly self-pitying.
The film’s best scene finds Schneider and Dutronc at a café discussing the latest advancements in their careers, like a husband and wife pair coming together for dinner after a long day’s work and mundanely conversing just to talk about something. But when the exchange turns into an analyzation of their relationship, things get heated, particularly when Mr. Chevalier declares his love for his wife. This sets the latter off. “I love you means nothing!” Mrs. Chevalier unexpectedly screams, knocking their dishes and silverware off the table. In that moment, she reaches an epiphany — her marriage has become one of obligation, and she can no longer be happy sitting through meaningless conversations and half-hearted proclamations of love. After that, the film turns tragic, and it also starts working its way toward new beginnings.
For her performance in the film, Schneider won the inaugural César Award for Best Actress, an achievement which marked her status as an actress someone like Nadine Chevalier could only dream of being. The movie hosting that excellent performance, That Most Important Thing: Love, isn’t always as riveting as she is. It’s by turns eccentric and keyed up, but it’s better when it’s keyed up and it’s more frequently just eccentric. Żulawski would go on to improve himself. But as long as the filmmaker’s able to provoke in some fashion or another, a lacking of total cohesion isn’t always a necessity. B
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
That Most Important Thing: Love August 8, 2017
ne of the first images we see in Andrezj Żuławski’s agitated That Most Important Thing: Love (1975) is the badly mangled body of a young man, covered in blood and crumpled like a rag in the corner of a room. A woman, an actress, walks toward the corn syrup-covered remains and crouches over him, her face placid. A voice, that of a director’s, commands that she tell her playing-dead co-star that she loves him, and that her delivery must be both anguished and aroused.