Zulawski speaks at Cannes in 1981. (Photo: Getty Images)

Andrzej Zulawski, the Polish director known for his provocative arthouse films exploring the extremes of human emotion and behavior, has died. His death was confirmed by the Polish Film Institute, and comes one day after his son posted an update on Facebook saying Zulawski was in the final stages of a long battle with cancer. He was 75.

Born into a literary family, after studying film in France in the ’50s Zulawski began his career in his native Poland. He worked as an assistant to Ashes And Diamonds director Andrzej Wajda before striking out on his own with a duo of films, 1971’s The Third Part Of The Night, and 1972’s The Devil. After the latter film was banned in Poland, Zulawski moved to France, where he directed The Most Important Thing: Love (1975) with Romy Schneider. He would spend much of the remainder of his life in France, where he enjoyed his greatest renown. (He was inducted into the French Legion of Honor in 2002.)


In 1981, Zulawski directed what is probably his best-known film—and one of only two films to receive an American release—the psychological horror movie Possession. Starring Isabelle Adjani in an unforgettable performance as a housewife whose affair hides a more sinister secret and Sam Neill as her bewildered husband, the film has seen a renaissance among American cinephiles in recent years thanks to repertory screenings. After directing two more films in France—1984’s The Public Woman and 1985’s Mad Love, both inspired by Dostoyevsky—Zulawski was finally able to finish his film On The Silver Globe, which he began shooting in the ‘70s before being shut down by the Communist authorities. The film, which The New York Times describes as a “masterpiece” and “outsider art on a huge scale,” was released in 1988.

After the fall of the Communist government in Poland, Zulawski returned in the mid-’90s to make The Shaman (1996), a film whose lead actress, an unknown named Iwona Petry, was essentially driven from the industry in the wake of her disturbing and highly sexual performance in the film. After that, he made two more films: 2000’s Fidelity and, 15 years later, Cosmos, which premiered at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival and was picked up for North American distribution the day before Zulawski’s death.

Zulawski was known for his ability to produce exceptional performances from actresses like Schneider, Adjani, and Sophie Marceau, who starred in several of Zulawski’s films. His relationship with Marceau was personal as well as professional; the two were together from 1985—when she was 18 and he was 42—until 2001, and had a son, Vincent, in 1995. Zulawski is also survived by two children from a previous marriage, including filmmaker Xawery Zulawski.