Magnum photographers have, over more than seven decades, captured pivotal moments in popular culture as much as historic events and societal sea changes. Working behind the scenes on sets of many classic films, they have captured not only iconic stars at various stages of their careers, but also documented the changing nature of cinema and film production. Sets, equipment, and special effects that once seemed futuristic are, with the passing of time rendered disarmingly romantic.
Here, we look at Jean Gaumy’s work made on the set of L’important c’est d’aimer, by Polish director Andrzej Zulawski. A searing melodrama on the subject of love and longing, it is the esoteric auteur’s most accessible, and poignant, film.
You can see other stories in the Magnum On Set series, here.
In 1974, Polish director Andrzej Zulawski made his first French film, L’important c’est d’aimer (That Most Important Thing: Love), a mesmerising study of amour fou loosely adapted from Christopher Frank’s novel La nuit américaine. The film was shot in Paris, where Zuwalski had been living since the release of his bloody and banned film The Devil in 1972, which had rendered him a persona non grata in his native country. Also residing in the capital was the French photographer Jean Gaumy, then in his mid-20s, who was invited to shoot the making of the memorable movie, starring a César-winning Romy Schneider, Italian heartthrob Fabio Testi, French pop star Jacques Dutronc and eccentric German actor Klaus Kinski.
Gaumy hadn’t heard of Zulawski, but was told by the film’s producer that the experience would likely be an epic one given Zulawski’s controversial reputation. “And then I entered this ‘maelstrom’,” Gaumy relayed in a 2017 interview, “which was beautiful by the way. Not as hysterical as they say… Zulawski kept everyone’s mood under control.” And indeed, L’important c’est d’aimer is in many ways the director’s most restrained film; while it contains all the Zulawski trademarks – “the explosions of violence, sexuality, and despair,” to quote culture.pl – it does so in a manner less frenzied than his other films, with deeply moving results.
It is the story of Nadine (Schneider), a down-on-her-luck actress reluctantly earning a living making sexploitation movies. While shooting one such film, she is caught on camera by Servais (Testi) – a photographer similarly beholden to the porn industry when it comes to paying his bills. The unbidden intruder is instantly smitten with the tortured beauty and asks to see her again. She agrees, setting in motion a devastating love triangle (one of Zulawski’s favoured dramatic tropes) between the two protagonists and Nadine’s goofy, film-star-obsessed husband (Dutronc).
"The series demonstrates Gaumy’s flair for natural composition, while his close-up portraits rival Zulawski’s camerawork in their intimacy..."
Passionate marital melodrama ensues, enhanced by lingering close-ups of the actors’ faces and a soaring musical score by Georges Delerue, and interspersed by explicit orgy scenes that reveal the seedy underbelly of 1970s Paris. (As writer Samm Deighan shrewdly observed, “In a sense, L’important c’est d’aimer is so subversive because it inserts the trappings of a conventional, bourgeois melodrama into the squalid world of pornography.”) The still-green Gaumy – who would later photograph in hospitals, prisons and war zones alike – watched all of this unfold in wonderment, camera at the ready. “My eyes were wide open, like a kitten,” he said.
Zulawski’s exploration of love, and its many guises, is undoubtedly one of the film’s strongest qualities – a theme revisited even more forcefully in the director’s notorious horror/fantasy Possession some years later – but perhaps even more riveting are its meta-fictitious overtones.
"As an actress playing an actress in the throes of self-doubt, Schneider captivatingly blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality. Adding fuel to the fire is the marvellously madcap Kinski..."
As an actress playing an actress in the throes of self-doubt, Schneider captivatingly blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality. Adding fuel to the fire is the marvellously madcap Kinski as the deranged thespian Karl-Heinz Zimmer. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Nadine – starring alongside Zimmer in an avant-garde performance of Richard III – dashes off stage in tears. She is comforted by Zimmer in her dressing room, where they discuss the fear of artistic failure. The moment fascinated Gaumy, who was compelled to commit it to film: “It was two damaged beings talking, then – and they knew that’s what they had to play. Damn! There were both sides of the mirror, I was lost! We knew it was a tremendous scene.”
"Gaumy positioned himself as a voyeur on set, covertly observing and documenting art in motion, while adding a final, wonderfully apt, layer to a meta masterpiece"
Zulawski’s talent for extracting extraordinary performances from his cast – and his female leads, in particular – seems to lie in this ability to tap into their real-life anxieties. And Gaumy’s many candid, behind-the-scenes snaps of Schneider engaged in intense conversations with the director evidence how closely he worked with his cast to achieve this.
Other powerful shots include a thumb-sucking Kinski lying with two nude women on a bed – images Gaumy said he was gifted by the actor in between scenes. Pictures of Dutronc show the pop icon looking insouciantly cool, replete with a cigar and dark glasses; while, in a sweetly personal interaction, a smiling Schneider playfully rushes the young image-maker’s camera. “That was nice,” Gaumy recalled. “It showed me that my silent presence sometimes made her uneasy [too]. That tempered my incredible shyness and hers as well.”
As a whole, the series demonstrates Gaumy’s flair for natural composition, while his close-up portraits rival Zulawski’s camerawork in their intimacy. “It’s enriching to get to know human nature in rather special circumstances, such as a movie set,” he said. Much like Testi’s quietly lurking photographer – dubbed “the phantom” by Nadine – Gaumy positioned himself as a voyeur on set, covertly observing and documenting art in motion, while adding a final, wonderfully apt, layer to a meta masterpiece.