Any discussion of Cosmos immediately has to acknowledge that it’s the final work of a most uncompromising cinematic auteur, the recently deceased Andrzej Żuławski. And on the evidence of the film itself, it’s understandable that the director might have limited his own appeal even amongst the parish of art-house cinema: it’s highly distinctive but also vexing and confounding. It’s possible the two diverging reactions to this will be either those who appreciate its excessiveness, or those who feel they are being driven in a car with no brakes.
Żuławski has spoken of his disregard for the demands of the majority of film watchers, who belong to what he calls “Planet Cinema” and need everything spelt out for them. Indeed, Cosmos’ story, based on the book by Witold Gombrowicz, belongs to Planet Żuławski. As befits his exodus from communist Poland towards the uninhibited intellectualism and sexuality of France (he has enjoyed working with art-house royalty on several occasions), Cosmos seems quintessentially European in many ways: the main protagonist, the cultured Witold (Jonathan Genet), stays with his shallow friend Fuchs (Johan Libereau) at a French family-run holiday house and is caught up in both his anxiety over a series of macabre local animal murders, and his sudden lust for a married cohabitant (Victoria Guerra).
With its befuddling mix of eroticism, mystery and absurdity, what stops Cosmos from being unbearably pretentious is how comically Zulawski regards the making a work of art – particularly one as esoteric as this. He layers the film with linguistic tics, quotations from classic literature (in the voice of Donald Duck at one point) and much surreal imagery: a disfigured harelip, a sparrow hanging from a small rope, a man sprinkling salt onto his wart at the dinner table. What does this all mean? The story seeks to change the audience’s reaction into Why can’t we view things as just details without attaching a wider meaning to them?
There are eye-bulging, eruptive performances by many of the actors (the rest are portrayed as either comically dull or frivolous) who are never far from either orgasm or breakdown. Żuławski’s marshalling of these wild performances is reminiscent of a psychiatrist electrically shocking his more dangerous patients. So Cosmos is a contradictory work in many ways, ludicrous yet high-brow, hilarious but alienating, seeking to deconstruct the alleged dishonesty in any storytelling that makes us doubt the meaningless of the cosmos. So what forced Zulawski to make the film in the first place? Perhaps it is ultimately the parting mischief of an old man letting go of the great obsession in his life in the only way he knew how.
Cosmos is released in selected cinemas on 19th August 2016.
Watch the trailer for Cosmos here: