Directed by: Andrzej Zulawski.
Written by: Andrzej Zulawski based on the book by Witold Gombrowicz.
Starring: Sabine Azéma (Madame Woytis), Jean-François Balmer (Léon), Jonathan Genet (Witold), Johan Libéreau (Fuchs), Victória Guerra (Lena), Clémentine Pons (Catherette / Ginette), Andy Gillet (Lucien), Ricardo Pereira (Tolo), António Simão (Curé).
There are certain times that I have to admit that I just don’t “get” something – and Andrzej Zulawski’s Cosmos is one of those times. The late Polish director, who died earlier this year, is one of those auteurs that is beloved by a small circle of cinephiles, but who has never really broken out wider than that. In the wake of his death, and the many wonderful pieces on him that I read, I did go back and watch what is probably his most famous film – 1981’s Possession – a horror film about a martial breakdown, with a terrific performance by Isabelle Adjani that is disturbing, unsettling and unforgettable. Having loved that film, I figured I should watch Zulawski’s finale film – Cosmos – which premiered on the Festival Circuit last year, and then released in a few theaters this year – before hitting VOD, and got mainly strong reviews. It is one of the oddest films of the year – and one of the most confounding. And I will admit it – I don’t get this one. I don’t get what precisely Zulawski was going for here, so it becomes harder to judge if he succeeded in doing so.
The story is about a law student named Witold (Jonathan Genet), who fails an exam, and has a week to prepare for a makeup. Along with his strange friend Fuchs (Johan Libereau) – who has some sort of ill-defined job in the fashion industry – they end up as guests in a sort of bed and breakfast, run by a family of eccentric nutjobs – which is fine, because Witold and Fuchs are just as nuts. Witold says he’s going to study- and also write his novel, which sounds like a bunch of stream of consciousness insanity. Fuchs disappears for stretches of time every night, and comes home baring more and more signs of physical violence that no one mentions. The house is presided over by a banker named Leon (Jean-Francois Balmer) and his paranoid wife (Sabine Azema, with her trademark wild red hair intact). Witold is driven mad with obsession over two younger women – the maid, Catherette (Clementine Pons) with a deformed mouth, and beautiful Lena (Victoria Guerra), who is married to a boring banker. When Witold goes walking in the woods, he finds various animals have been killed and hung by their necks – mainly birds.
I honestly don’t know what this all means – or was supposed. On one level, I was reminded of Luis Bunuel – the strange, surreal setting, the concentration on the mundane problems of the upper class, who trap themselves together for no good reason – yet I’m not sure what the target of all that satire is. On another level, the film really does seem to be about madness – who Witold drives himself insane with his writing, and his fixation on the two very different women. How Lena goes a little crazy herself as no one sees beyond her beautiful exterior. How the parents have long ago gone mad, showing everyone what future awaits them. The film throws in references of everything to Sartre to Steven Spielberg – to what end, I don’t know.
To be fair, the movie can be a fairly inspired piece of lunacy. The early scenes, when you’re trying to make sense of it all (unaware that you never will), can be fun – as are the closing scenes, which was long after I stopped caring that I couldn’t figure out what was going on. This was Zulawski’s final film – but also his first in 15 years. He clearly had something he wanted to say with the film. I’ll be damned if I have any clue what that was however. This is a film I simply don’t get – if you do, more power to you.