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Andrzej Żuławski has made a name for himself by writing and directing excessive, baroque movies that defy realism, good taste and many cinematic conventions (including commercial considerations). He reminds me of Alejandro Jodorowsky in his extremism, and his determination to film a personal vision no matter what. In the 80s Żuławski encountered repression from the Polish government, and moved to France, where he was treated more liberally: a career move similar to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s about the same time. Żuławski made 12 films between 1970 and 2000, and La fidélité was his last film.
Żuławski’s 2000 film La fidélité is faithful to La Princesse de Clèves, Madame de La Fayette’s best selling novel of 1678. In that novel the mother of a young girl takes her to the king’s court to find a husband. The poor girl is intrigued against, and finds only the middle aged Prince de Clèves. Shortly afterwards she meets and falls in love with the handsome Duke de Nemours. The Duke becomes involved in a scandal, and the Princess believes he has been unfaithful to her. The Prince discovers his wife’s affair with the Duke, and will not believe it has not been consummated. He falls ill and dies, his heart broken. Feeling guilt at her husband’s unhappiness, the Princess enters a monastery. A tale of passion mastered by duty, to no avail.
Into this basic love story Żuławski introduces a theme regarding the morality of press reporting. He examines both the duty and the deceit of publishing (and by further implication, film making). The part of the Prince is taken by a book publisher, Clève (Pascal Greggory), the Princess is Clélia (Sophie Marceau), an art photographer, and the Duke is Némo (Guillaume Canet), a photographer who specialises in exposing crime and corruption and who may stand for Żuławski himself. The King of the novel is MacRoi (Michel Subor), an unscrupulous publisher. Clève’s company is going broke publishing literature, MacRoi is making a fortune printing tacky scandal stories.
The theme of the novel, the conflict between honour (fidelity, or duty) and love (passion, which may easily become corrupted into selfishness), is made evident in both the movie’s plots. Clève is upright but ineffective, his passion for literature, and his wife, is deep and true, but he cannot express it fully. Clélia is honest in her (uncommercial) photographic depictions. Both are faithful to an ideal, both a personal and a professional one. Is Clélia too, ineffective, practising an art no one cares for? Némo is passionate about exposing wrongs, but is he, also, being exploitative? Is MacRoi, a cynical exploiter who cares only about making money, justified by the fact he can support the other three, or is he corrupting them by giving their work exposure? Clélia’s mother (Magali Noël) has made her choice long ago, rejecting a love affair with MacRoi, who may have been Clélia’s father, for marriage with a worthy and undistinguished man.
The film is operatic in style, with expressive camera movement, wide tracking shots suffused with colour, strikingly beautiful. Emotions are expressed histrionically, the couples make love passionately, burst into tears when hurt, quarrel violently with one another. This operatic quality is reinforced by the film’s soundtrack by Andrzej Korzynski, a regular partner of Żuławski. It surges with yearning, exquisite romantic piano music, and counters this with brooding string chords and blaring rock music for scenes of violence. There is a “Best of” CD of Korzynski’s film music which includes the music for La fidélité, available as a mp3 download at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. A sample of the piano music is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Q4lapOgB6Q&list=PLiAMPKGsu6P3TSUjJDlesOJmKMQGHB60R.
Némo takes Clélia into the world he is investigating, the savagely poor world of his origins. This, he tells her, is real, not the weak artistic posturing of her photographs of empty Parisian streets or faceless high fashion models. There is no doubt of his sincerity. But during the film we gradually see his corruption, as fame as a reporter tempts him to put his images before the crimes he exposes, as a result of their impact in MacRoi’s exploitative publications. The newspapers end up creating the news.
However, credibility, already strained by the scenes of heightened emotion, is finally broken during the conclusion of the film. The investigations of Némo arouse the anger of an underworld smuggling gang, and they attempt to kill him (in the streets of Paris) using a variety of anti personnel weapons including flame throwers, sub machine guns and high power rifles with explosive bullets. Operatic again, and in a HK action movie OK, but here? Némo survives, and the people of Paris on the sidewalk somehow survive as well, only MacRoi is accidentally killed. It’s as if his producer told Żuławski to add something for the American market, but it’s typical of his style.
MacRoi’s sister inherits his publishing empire, and all she does to change things is to fire Clélia for unknown reasons. Clélia retires to a monastery. There the monks have a meal and watch American TV for unknown reasons (doesn’t seem devout does it?) and Clélia sees that Némo has used her story with him as the basis of a soap opera. He was exploitative all along. His film is the one we are watching, the only change is that the dialogue is in English. Where does that leave us, the audience of the film? Clélia laughs, walks alone, and sees the ghost of Clève, and asks his forgiveness. The film ends, perhaps true to the book, but not to the movie adaptation.
If you can avoid looking too closely at the realism of what is depicted, and pay attention instead to the theme as exemplified in Madame de La Fayette’s book, you will be swept away by the film’s fervid romanticism, as Clélia, never having known anything in the past but anonymous sex, finds true love, not once but twice, and loses both men. Are they all illusion: love, truth, fidelity?
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.