“You are just a face, a mask, an object, a thing— behind it, there’s nothing. The void.” Cosmos (2015) is radiant, among director Andrzej Żuławski’s warmest films, favoring the fervor of ecstasy over that of despair. But did Żuławski’s final film abandon a quality that has renewed interest in his work?
After a 15-year hiatus from filmmaking, the director was approached by producer Paulo Branco with the prospect of adapting Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel, winner of the International Prize for Literature. Żuławski described “Cosmos” as a text that nourished him, with an insolence he cherished, and in many ways, he was a natural choice of director.
Żuławski and Gombrowicz spent much of their lives in exile, with work subjected to censorship in their native Poland. More importantly, they shared a sensibility, a common enemy and strategy of attack. Both rebelled against the insincerity of social conduct, aiming to provoke, by means of the absurd, a revelation of authenticity— forcibly, often hilariously, cleaving audiences from their expectations. An overview of Żuławski’s oeuvre can be found in frequent Gombrowicz translator Danuta Borchardt’s description of an earlier novel, “Pornographia:” “[It] focuses on the outer limits of the imagination, on the forbidden, on the erotic fantasies of middle age, on living them through the young, and on manipulations that influence the young to the point of crime and murder, [testing] notions of belief in God versus non-belief, [and presenting] traditional culture and national customs in a state of exhaustion and atrophy.”
Żuławski, like Gombrowicz, was interested in “masks” or “faces” worn to survive the duress of social constraint. Toying often with low-brow forms— the gangster flick, the detective novel— both Żuławski and Gombrowicz sought to expose the chaos of the human interior by exceeding the bounds of realism. Żuławski spoke of genre as a kind of facade used to sell his films to producers and audiences. Initially describing L’amour braque (1985), an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” to producers as a film about a whore starring Sophie Marceau, genre and sex appeal were the means by which Żuławski marketed his brand of aggressive euphoria. The skin is delivered, though in performances too hyperactive and grotesque to be easily digested. As he noted, “It’s only when you pretend to be mainstream and then put your bag of dynamite and make an explosion that something changes. To my mind, this is the only possibility of transgression.”
Many of Żuławski’s most potent explosions, those that have made the largest and most lasting impact, have owed to the strength of his actresses. Though sex appeal lingers in spite of its subversion, his best-known films are propelled by the painful transformations of female characters, who embody a kind of liberating chaos, spurring the unravelling of a world that was never properly put together. The jarring freedom from inhibition that marks these performances once sparked allegations of on-set abuse, but has come to be celebrated as revelatory by a new, predominantly female generation of critics, including Kier-La Janisse, Samm Deighan, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and Justine A. Smith, who noted in 2014 that, “A man who has never seen Żuławski’s Possession (1981) does not truly understand what it is to be a woman.”
The absence of this intensity has been the primary criticism of Cosmos by reviewers attuned to Żuławski’s style. From Neil Young’s review for the Hollywood Reporter: “There are no ‘Żuławskian,’ concern-inducing thespian freakouts here— the nearest equivalent is one disappointingly brief interlude in which Alain Resnais’s widow and longtime muse Sabine Azéma enjoys a ‘Joan Crawford’ moment with a chopping-axe.”
Cosmos deals with the disassociation inherent in solipsism. As Witold discovers a series of animals and objects strung up like humans, he is propelled on a frantic search to derive meaning from objects, signs, and gestures, losing the ability to make “normal” distinctions. As in the majority of Żuławski’s films, madness is inextricable from love, with love, or the loss of it, as the impetus for increasingly extreme behavior. Żuławski inserted two of his trademark love triangles into the film— there is no indication in the novel that either Lena or Fuks has romantic inklings for Witold. Still, in both, Witold’s love, or obsession, is never requited because, with Witold as a protagonist, Lena is never approached as fully human.
It is difficult to describe the Lena in print, as our impression of her is irretrievably skewed: “Her little hand was too small, it was not a hand but a little hand, so what could she be with that little hand of hers, she couldn’t be nothing, she was… she was… powerful in her effect, yet within herself she was nothing… confusion… confusion… confusion… matches, spectacles, a latch, a basket, an onion, cookies. […] There could be no doubt that her emptiness was sucking me in, soaking me up…”
While there is indication onscreen that Lena may have feelings for Witold, their affair is mediated by objects rather than touch or speech— the caressing of silverware, the adopting of nail color, the treasuring of cigarette butts, a kiss only through paper lips. It has been said that the lovers in Żuławski’s films never truly connect because they occupy incompatible states of madness, rendering communication impossible. The difference in Cosmos is that if Lena is mad, her madness is never addressed.
The type of hysteria for which Żuławski is known— beautiful women erupting wild and open-mouthed, with torqued physicality— is present in Cosmos, but it serves either as punctuation or is played for laughs, in a sharp, brilliant performance by Azéma, whose extreme emotions often render her frozen. Lena’s brief breakdowns in the snow and the forest are never explored, and she immediately snaps back into a confident, manipulative, and ultimately vacuous young woman. She, like other Żuławskian heroines, longs to be “a real actress,” but we are shown none of the wrenching struggle that structured the plots of L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) or La femme publique (1984). Given the glimpses of Victória Guerra’s considerable ability, the shallow focus on Lena may feel like a missed opportunity.
However, any disappointment serves only to emphasize the kind of performances we crave from Żuławski’s female characters. The trajectory of Cosmos is a first-person account of Witold’s descent into madness, portrayed with lyrical abandon by Jonathan Genet. To suddenly switch focus to Lena’s experience would be to ignore the dehumanizing effects of obsession from afar. What we may miss in Cosmos should encourage the rediscovery of lesser-known but nonetheless striking films such as Szamanka (1996), rather than prompt criticism of Cosmos for remaining faithful to its source.
Cosmos is undeniably a Żuławskian film, with playful, expressionist language, with a time-frame that bends upon itself, and with characters occupying the madonna/whore binary played by the same actress, in this case a bewitching Clémentine Pons. As in La femme publique and Possession among others, one of these characters is socially acceptable, here a giggly, girlish maid, while the other rebels against her social exclusion, here a pregnant woman criticized for her hygiene and choice of husband, who, like Marie in L’amour braque, disrupts the narrative to declare that she is unashamed.
Perhaps the most exciting divergence in the film was the reimagining of Fuks. In the novel he is pathetic, languid, the source of Witold’s annoyance and the butt of his jokes. Fuchs onscreen is fashionable, witty if not formally educated, and he imbues the film with its unique warmth. Johan Libéreau is one of the brightest stars in Cosmos, no mean feat, and his character is among the most lovable in Żuławski’s cannon.
Whether he offends or inspires, it is impossible to react passively to Żuławski’s cinema. His films are loud, dazzling smacks upside the head, reminders of the aliveness of the world, even when they reflect crippling isolation from it. They are unforgettable, continuing to devastate, delight, and confound long after the lights have come up. It is as though Żuławski continuously aspired to demonstrate the truth in Witold’s assertion that, “There is something like an excess of reality, its swelling beyond endurance, […] a luxury of disorder, a splendor of chaos.”
Cosmos opens in the US on June 17, and earned Żuławski the Best Director prize at the 2015 Locarno Film Festival.