For me, Andrzej Żuławski’s thirteenth and final feature film, Cosmos (2015), is a bittersweet affair. On one hand, this is overwhelmingly because I got to see the film’s US premier a mere two days after his passing on February 17 of this year, which seems either grossly unfair or strangely fitting. But there is also much about Cosmos, an adaptation of an absurdist novel by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, that is bittersweet. There’s something fundamentally ridiculous about saying that a 75-year-old director’s last work — and his return to filmmaking after a 15-year absence — possesses “mature sensibilities.” But like the best of Żuławski’s later films, such as La note bleue (1991) and La fidélité (2000), Cosmos is a complex film that captures a surprisingly wide range of flavors, tones, and moods, almost too wide to really be digested in one viewing.
Loosely described as a “metaphysical noir thriller,” the plot of Cosmos is both deceptively simple and maddeningly abstruse. Two young men, Witold (Jonathan Genet) and Fuchs (Johan Libéreau), are taking a short holiday in the countryside. They stay at a guesthouse owned by Madame Woytis (a powerful performance from Alain Resnais’ widow Sabine Azéma) and her nonsensical husband Léon (Jean-François Balmer). Witold and Fuchs become obsessed with solving a mystery surrounding strange signs — a dead sparrow hanged by a wire in the woods, a mark in the ceiling of their room, a scar on the lip of the maid, and other clues in the garden — while Witold falls in love with the Woytis’s daughter Lena (Victória Guerra), who also lives in the house with her stuffy architect husband, Lucien (Andy Gillet).
Though I standby the description of Cosmos as a mature work, its central themes of sex, death, and existential investigation are refracted through a youthful, if not openly naive character. Żuławski has described some of his previous protagonists — such as those found in films like L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) and L’amour braque (1985) — as being childlike and Witold fits in with this type. He is also a moody dreamer, subject to constant flights of fancy (and fantasy). Like Gombrowicz and Żuławski himself, Witold is a writer and is defined by a relentless, if morbid curiosity about the world around him.
Witold’s need to weave a narrative out of random signs and string together seemingly unrelated, inconsequential events becomes increasingly pathological as the film progresses and as he becomes more obsessed with Lena. Though he begins as a self-described detective, or even an impartial observer, he soon becomes an active participant in the peculiar events of the guesthouse. The book’s stream-of-consciousness prose borders on the scatological as Witold’s adventures function largely as attempts to make sense of life’s meaninglessness and its many absurdities. But Żuławski — perhaps even more so than Gombrowicz — presents this struggle as central to life’s mystery, its fascination, and even its wonder.
This sense of awe is particularly reflected in Cosmos’s preoccupation with love, sex, and coupling. A fundamentally, if disturbingly erotic film, this is yet another example of Żuławski’s tendency to portray falling in love as an involuntary, even inconvenient or unpleasant event, one that often occurs against the wills of the respective lovers. Many of his films feature a melodramatic “love at first sight” moment, where the destinies of two characters are altered by simply looking at each other. A scene of this type occurs in various forms all the way from one of his early short films, Pavoncello (1969) to his first feature, The Third Part of the Night (1971), as well as his first French film, L’important c’est d’aimer, and appears in nearly all of his later works, such as Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989), La note bleue, Szamanka (1996), and La fidélité.
In Gombrowicz’s novel, the moment occurs when Witold first spies Lena, mere moments after he and Fuchs enter the guesthouse and Madame Woytis takes them to see the room they will rent. He writes, “And yet there was a surprise, because one of the beds was occupied and someone lay on it, a woman, lying, it seemed, not quite as she should have been, though I don’t know what gave me the sense of this being, let’s say, so out of place—whether it was that the bed was without sheets, with only a mattress—or that her leg lay partially on the metal mesh of the bed (because the mattress had moved a little), or was it the combination of the leg and the metal that surprised me on this hot, buzzing, exhausting day” (22). Witold is again later haunted by this image of skin on wire mesh and fixates on Lena’s hands — particularly how they hold her cigarettes, manipulate her food, or rest on the dinner table — and her lips, a visual trope Żuławski makes particularly elegant use of.
For Witold, Lena is as much of a mystery as the hanging bird. He spends much of the film trying to know her and to assess the nature of her relationship with her husband. In the novel, he repeated wonders things like, “Were they in love? Passionate love? Sensible? Romantic? Easy? Difficult? Not in love at all?” (36). Witold’s desire for her becomes increasingly frustrated and internalized, resulting in an unexpectedly violent scene where he strangles her pet cat to death, an act the other characters interpret as being connected to the mystery of the hanging bird. Later, Witold fantasizes about strangling Lena and, as in many of Żuławski’s other films, this unresolved erotic longing becomes a disruptive force.
The residents of the guesthouse, including Witold and Fuchs, travel to the seaside for a few days, where Witold is confronted with a series of other relationships — Lena’s increasingly strange parents, other young married couples in various states of conflict (including one character that slyly references Tintin), and a frustrated, hitchhiking priest — which serve to contrast the love triangle that is forming between Lena, her husband, and Witold. This dramatic structure is present in nearly every single one of Żuławski’s films, but takes an unusual form here. Like several of his films — particularly L’important c’est d’aimer and Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours — Cosmos ends in suicide, with the implication that Lena’s husband hanged himself. Witold questions whether or not there was foul play, possibly implicating himself.
Despite Lucien’s sudden, completely unexpected departure from the film, neither Gombrowicz nor Żuławski ever resolve this issue of Witold and Lena’s romance, though their slightly disparate approaches to the conclusion mark an important difference in the two narratives. In the last few words of the novel, Witold says, “I returned to Warsaw, my parents, war with my father again, various other things, problems, complications, difficulties. Today we had chicken fricassee for dinner” (273). Żuławski also ends with a variation (I believe a different translation) of this last line about the chicken dinner, but leaves things much more open-ended. He makes it clear that the attraction Witold feels for Lena has become mutual and the film presumably ends with everyone returned to the guesthouse. As in Boris Godunov, he pulls the cameras back and breaks the fourth wall, revealing the cast and crew at work.
This ending line — about having chicken for dinner — simultaneously underlines three of the film’s other important themes: humor, a sense of whimsy, and the importance of food. While I’ve seen other critics compare Cosmos loosely to Buñuel’s surreal, comic critiques of the bourgeoisie, Cosmos seems to me to be more Rabelaisian than Buñuelian. In the brilliant study, Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “In the acting of eating, as we have said, the confines between the world and the body are overstepped by the body; it triumphs over the world, over its enemy, celebrates its victory, grows at the world’s expense“ (282-283).
More satirical and nonsensical than outright surreal, Cosmos places an unusual emphasis on mealtimes and domestic rituals. As in La note bleue, food is not only connected with familial interactions and social intimacy, but with an earthy sense of physicality and sensuality. While scenes in restaurants and cafes figures strongly into many of Żuławski’s films — such as L’important c’est d’aimer, Possession, Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, Szamanka, and La fidélité — the closet parallel is La note bleue. This exploration of the fading historical relationship between Polish pianist Frédéric Chopin and French novelist George Sand devotes its running time nearly equally to melancholic contemplations of death and moments of ribald humor. Many scenes are concerned with preparing or eating food and, like Cosmos, the kitchen is a central location.
Bakhtin also illustrates the connections between food and wordplay that occur occasionally in La note bleue and even more frequently — and abstractly — in the film and book versions of Cosmos. He states, “The banquet is even more important as the occasion for wise discourse, for gay truth. There is an ancient tie between the feast and the spoken word. The antique symposium presents this relation in its clearest and most classic form. But medieval grotesque realism had its own original symposium, that is, the tradition of festive speech” (283). As often uncomfortable emotional truths are revealed during scenes of feasting in La note bleue, Witold and particularly Léon, the owner of the guesthouse, go on whimsical flights of verbal fancy at nearly every meal.
Léon, played by prolific Swiss-French actor and director Jean-François Balmer in a nearly film-stealing role, is a perfect example of Żuławski’s fascinating approach to side characters. It would be easy to see Léon as a future version of Witold. He is fully consumed by existential musings and his family — particularly their communal dinners — seem to be the only thing tenuously linking him to reality. He is something of a Holy Fool, a character type frequently used by Rabelais and also throughout Renaissance literature in general, and he develops a special bond with Witold. While the younger writer is ostensibly the only person able to fully understand Léon’s individualized use of gibberish — he has basically created his own language — Léon has a clear understanding of Witold’s feelings for his daughter.
This difficult use of language as exemplified by both Léon and Witold makes Cosmos not necessarily suited to the inexperienced filmgoer and it’s important to note that Żuławski also layers the film with literary and cultural references (even taking a few light-hearted jabs at himself). For example, in Daniel Bird’s recent essay on Żuławski for Film Comment, he mentions that, “Cosmos opens with the first lines from Dante’s Inferno and also features a poem by Fernando Pessoa in both French translation and the original Portuguese.” Unlike other European arthouse directors who litter their films with cinematic references, Żuławski is an overwhelmingly literary director. Over the years he adapted everything from Dostoyevsky and Turgenev to obscure French memoirs, and also peppered his works with an incredibly long list of references including everything from Shakespeare and the Book of Revelations to French pop culture.
In this way, Cosmos is a fitting conclusion to a brilliant career. It’s an almost intentionally challenging film, one that expects active spectatorship and an intelligent, educated, attentive audience. Gombrowicz wrote of his own novel, “Cosmos for me, is black, first and foremost black, something like a black churning current full of whirls, stoppages, flood waters, a black water carrying lots of refuse, and there is man gazing at it—gazing at it and swept up by it—trying to decipher, to understand and to bind it into some kind of a whole…” A collage of linear and non-linear plot elements, powerful visual and literary experiments, and both intellectual and emotional gymnastics, Cosmos is both a powerful singular work and an incredible adaptation. While a few others have attempted it over the years — including Jerzy Skolimowski, who was apparently so traumatized by the experience of filming Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke as 30 Door Key (1991) that he didn’t return to directing for nearly two decades — Cosmos stands as the most successful cinematic interpretation of any Gombrowicz text.
It’s perhaps ironic that though Żuławski returned to Poland for the final decades of his life, his last work was a French-Portuguese coproduction. This, of course, reflects poorly on the current Polish cultural climate and increasingly right-wing political conditions, which form an interesting parallel to Gombrowicz’s struggles. In his extensive Diary, Gombrowicz wrote, “I, who am terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland, have always been irritated by that little, childish, secondary, ordered, and religious world that is Poland.”
Gombrowicz, who spent a significant portion of his life in South America — thanks to a voyage just before the start of WWII that likely saved his life but stranded him there for a time — was equally frustrated by Polish culture, particularly the Soviet propensity for censorship. His work didn’t become really accessible until Żuławski was already a young man. In a recent Film Comment interview on Cosmos, Żuławski said, “We were feeding on his plays and books because he was like air, like light, in those terribly sad, grey, and lying times. Whatever he did looked like a savage provocation in front of the Communist concrete and total boredom and total incapacity to do anything right. My entire generation was a Gombrowicz generation.” And if I can say anything about Cosmos in conclusion, it is that it’s equally a savage provocation against boredom, stupidity, and conventionality and leaves one with a curious feeling of hope.