Heart Attacks: Zulawski, Pialat, Brooks, and May Murder Love


In a journal entry dated February 21, 1977, Susan Sontag compiled this fascinating inventory: “Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches….” The highly idiosyncratic list goes on. But the third item in this catalog of personal aversions is surely the most universal. Whether you’re unattached or partnered (happily or not), you’ve doubtless been subject to — and/or perpetuated — the pathologies of the twosome. Is it merely a coincidence that Sontag logged this note a week after the most noxious holiday of the year?

Since 2013, Anthology has offered respite from the sluices of treacle surrounding February 14 with sly Cupid counter-programming. “Valentine’s Day Massacre 2017” presents five films (all on 35mm) that are unsparing in their depiction of love’s derangements and of the emotional terrorism carried out by the couple. Released between 1971 and 1981, the movies do not belong to any one genre: Three are acerbic romantic comedies, one is a corrosive drama, one belongs to a category for which no adequate name yet exists (and perhaps never will). The central dyads in this quintet, though, are uniformly straight and almost exclusively white. Maybe later editions of “VD Massacre” will include more diverse miserable pairings. Until then, relish the not-so-stealth agenda advanced by this invigoratingly bleak series: that heterosexual mating among the pallid is indistinguishable from florid psychosis.

Not surprisingly, the most abrasive and destabilizing movies in the Anthology program are those with storylines rooted in the biographies of their makers. Possession (1981), reportedly inspired by the breakup of director Andrzej Zulawski’s first marriage, tracks spouses Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neill) as they destroy themselves — if not the entire world — through binges of jealousy, rage, and despair. “I don’t know!” are Anna’s first words, almost sobbed to Mark, who’s back home (an eerily quiet West Berlin, a city that the two appear to have completely cleared out via the sheer nuclear ferocity of their unraveling) after a long trip away for his mysterious job. Her confusion, grief, and agitation — and his — intensify after she admits to him that she’s been having an affair with an older, absurd, New Age–y Teuton. Her other lover — a viscous, tentacled creature with an unslakable sexual appetite — will be discovered much later. This unclassifiable, delirious dirge of a movie — at once a fathomless melodrama, a treatise on body horror, an oblique Cold War thriller, and a ludicrous religious parable — climaxes during an unsurpassable scene in a U-Bahn passageway. Hurling her groceries against the wall, Anna twitches and flails, eventually falling to her knees, moaning like an animal and oozing copious amounts of blood and white goo from her orifices. It’s a testament to Adjani’s profound commitment to the role and her full-bodied hysteria that the secretions do not appear to be special effects.

More transparently personal than Possession, Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972) is based on the French filmmaker’s novel of the same name, a lightly fictionalized chronicle of his six-year extramarital affair with a younger, working-class woman. The director’s surrogate, Jean (Jean Yanne), is a fortysomething, marginally employed documentarian who still shares a house with his frequently absent spouse; he subjects his 25-year-old lover, Catherine (Marlène Jobert), to such blistering insults as “You’ve never succeeded in anything and you never will.” This wretched pair fights and reconciles repeatedly over the course of nearly two excruciating, always engrossing (if queasily so) hours: Their seemingly final, furious, door-slamming partings are immediately followed, after a jarring cut, by yet another ill-fated reunion. Few films have ever captured as blisteringly love’s power to imprison, or portrayed so pitilessly a relationship in its most abject push-pull state.

In contrast to the utter despondency in Pialat’s film, Modern Romance (1981), directed, co-written by, and starring Albert Brooks, finds the laughs in breaking up and making up; courtship is just a crazed cycle of extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder. Playing Robert, a film editor on a low-rent space opera, Brooks — twice as butch as Woody Allen but just as neurotic, and, for this viewer, often as exasperating — commands much more screen time than Kathryn Harrold, as Mary, Robert’s on-again, off-again bank executive girlfriend. She’s missed when she’s not around. But I salute Brooks, who wholly embraces his extravagantly insecure and self-obsessed character, for taking jealousy to astonishing new heights (or depths).

Darker, meaner, and much funnier are Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971), her directing debut, and The Heartbreak Kid (1972), its follow-up. In the earlier film, Walter Matthau plays Henry, a contemptible toff with depleted accounts; to restore his funds, the sexually ambiguous aristo pursues May’s Henrietta, an ungainly, bespectacled botanist living in luxury. As mercenary cad and guileless klutz, Matthau and May are meticulous in their timing and delivery, the hilarity amplified by sight gags like the hill of bread crumbs that falls from Henrietta’s lap after she and her unscrupulous suitor leave a swank Upper East Side resto.

A near-peerless comedy of humiliation and dissimulation, The Heartbreak Kid finds Charles Grodin’s craven Lenny Cantrow ditching his bride of less than a week, Lila (Jeannie Berlin), for shiksa coed Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) while the new spouses are honeymooning in Miami Beach. Berlin gives a flawless performance: Lila is vulgar, childish, and maddening, but never pathetic; she’s always in possession of some small kernel of self-respect, no matter how mortifying her situation may be. Berlin is also the only child of May, a notorious perfectionist; The Heartbreak Kid is likely to be their only collaboration (May is 84, Berlin 67). The film would be perfect for a series that maybe we’ll see one mid-May at Anthology: Mother’s Day Mayhem, celebrating the most relentlessly consuming folie à deux of them all, that between moms and daughters.

‘Valentine’s Day Massacre 2017’

Anthology Film Archives

February 10–14