In terms of cattle and the arts alike, old mavericks can still deliver an energetic kick — as proven by veteran Polish writer-director Andrzej Zulawski‘s keenly awaited comeback Cosmos. A fast-paced adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz‘s seminal 1965 novel about bizarre shenanigans at a village guest-house, this metaphysical French-Portuguese gabfest boasts the uncompromising intensity that has often been Zulawski’s hallmark but leavens the stew with welcome streaks of off-kilter humor. One of the livelier contenders for this year’s Golden Leopard at Locarno, it will play best in upscale French and Polish venues but elsewhere — unless it wins big in Switzerland — may be too esoteric and divisive to make much impact beyond the festival circuit where Zulawski remains a cultishly revered name.
Long lauded by critics and academics as a key name in modernist fiction, Gombrowicz made a belated international breakthrough when Cosmos won a top French literary prize in 1967 — just two years before the author’s death. His works are often about language and its limitations, their complexity rendering them very difficult to translate into other languages, let alone transfer into other media such as cinema.
An admirably ambitious return by long-absent giant.
Zulawski’s near-contemporary Jerzy Skolimowski made a fair stab of it with 1991’s 30 Door Key (aka Ferdydurke), and then embarked on a 17-year directorial hiatus from directing. It’s been nearly as long since Zulawski’s last outing, Fidelity (2000), which starred his then-wife, Sophie Marceau, in one of the testing female roles for which the director has long been notorious: what he put Isabelle Adjani through on Possession (1981) and Iwona Petry on She-Shaman (1996) makes Lars Von Trier look like George Cukor, albeit with electrifying results.
While a fine showcase for the sensual beauty of Portuguese actress Victoria Guerra, there are no ‘Zulawskian‘, concern-inducing thespian freakouts here — the nearest equivalent is one disappointingly brief interlude in which Alain Resnais‘s widow and longtime muse Sabine Azema enjoys a ‘Joan Crawford‘ moment with a chopping-axe. Nodding to the recently deceased Resnais — this is through and through a post-modern, self-deconstructing exercise peppered with literary and cinematic allusions — Zulawski conducts proceedings as a wordy spoof of old-school farces: the bulk of the action unfolds in and around the confines of the one guesthouse, whose inhabitants find themselves propelled into extreme, sometimes ludicrous behavior by ill-controlled passions.
With all farces, timing and rhythms are absolutely crucial and Zulawski — working with editor Julia Gregory — maintains a disarming brio from the very first seconds, as struggling law-student Witold (Jonathan Genet) arrives for some R+R in a remote Portuguese village. This neurasthethic novelist-wannabe quickly pals up with pint-sized fashionista airhead Fuchs (Johan Libereau), the chalk-cheese duo finding themselves in a maelstrom of eccentricity swirling around French proprietors Leon (Jean-Francois Balmer) and his flame-haired spouse (Azema).
The lanky, loose-limbed Genet’s disconcerting facial resemblance to a youngish Jane Birkin is probably no coincidence, and may be interpreted as a hat-tip from Zulawski (the director has spent most of his professional career in France) to Jacques Rivette, with whom Birkin collaborated three times. Witold and Fuchs, seeking to piece together the clues and signs they discover all around them, are like bromantic updates of Rivette’s heroines, realizing that all of these macabre details — hanged birds, a murdered cat, a deformed lip, a ceiling water-stain — may have colossal significance or absolutely none whatsoever.
This being Gombrowicz, words are both the substance of and the key to this quasi-puzzle and the screenplay by sometime novelist Zulawski is a maddeningly intricate web of repetitions and puns where profundity and absurdity make for inseparable if awkward bedfellows. Balmer’s somewhat cracked Leon gets the wackiest of the verbiage, his dialogue peppered with lexical tics to the point of becoming their own dialect: by the time he comes up with the neologism subtitled as “secreto-bleurgh-um“, we almost know what he’s on about. But not quite.
Indeed, by this juncture many will have given up the ghost altogether, worn out by Cosmos‘s near-relentless combination of highfalutin intellectualism and daffy puckishness. For those willing to go along with Zulawski’s wayward flights of fancy, however, intermittently rich rewards await. Transcending the highly literary nature of his material, he ensures cinematographer Andrzej Szankowski‘s cameras find productively unlikely angles and are seldom still for long: they prowlingly glide, either via Steadicam or on dolly-tracks which are presented in unapologetically plain view during the final reel and pop up again in behind-the-scenes footage accompanying the credits. Andrzej Korzynski‘s score is likewise deployed with a deceptively light, witty hand, its cheesily conventional stylings frequently and amusingly chopped off mid-flow.
Production companies: Alfama, Leopardo
Cast: Jonathan Genet, Johan Libereau, Clementine Pons, Victoria Guerra, Sabine Azema
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Screenwriter: Andrzej Zulawski, based on the novel by Witold Gombrowicz
Producer: Paulo Branco
Cinematographer: Andre Szankowski
Production designer: Paula Szabo
Costume designer: Patricia Saalburg
Editor: Julia Gregory
Composer: Andrzej Korzynski
Casting: Sarah Teper, Leila Fournier
Sales: Alfama Films, Paris
No rating, 102 minutes