By Christoph Huber
“I smiled in the moonlight at the docile thought of the mind’s helplessness in the face of overwhelming, confounding, entangling reality…No combination is impossible…Any combination is possible…”
—Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos
“The bird can’t hang itself.”
Now that’s a thing we all can agree on, can’t we? Surely that little sparrow, inexplicably dangling on a blue wire from the branch of a tree, didn’t commit suicide—although later there will be mind-boggling speculation that he was sacrificed by the other birds. This hardly qualifies as weird in the context of Cosmos, whose progression rigorously follows through such increasingly haphazard connections, befitting the belated conjunction of two major Polish surrealists: infamous iconoclast Andrzej Zulawski, returning after a 15-year-hiatus from filmmaking to translate the final novel by Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) to the screen, with the title remaining both ironic and sincere. After all, the somewhat puzzling but inconspicuous case of the hanged bird, which crucially fascinates and nauseates the protagonist—named Witold, like the writer—turns out to be the first major event in an ever-escalating chain of associations, whose implications are indeed cosmic. Attempting to forge order from the chaos of the real world, Witold builds a private cosmos founded on arbitrary associations. Increasingly aware of facing a universe of possibilities, in which every connection can be randomly made, and thus is equally profound and silly, Gombrowicz’s (and Zulawski’s) Witold is seized by an existential vertigo: “All this within time that was reverberating like a gong, filled to the brim, cascade, vortex, swarm, cloud, the Milky Way, dust, sounds, events, this and that, etc., etc., etc.”
In short, it becomes impossible to distinguish the awesome from the absurd, and Zulawski’s cinema of intensity has been zig-zagging with furious power between those two poles for nearly half a century. This prototypical outlaw-auteur, equally given to extroverted grand gestures and an introverted, even implosive streak of self-scrutiny, has rebounded a few months shy of his 75th birthday in Locarno, emerging with the prize for Best Director. Zulawski’s adaptation of Gombrowicz’s attack against stupidity and lack of imagination, in which an (admittedly absurd) cosmos is willfully forged from unrelated details and fragments of human interaction, may be deceptively small-scale and less passion-aggressive than his most notorious achievements, but stays true to his surrealist leanings. Often considered a provocateur, not least for his naked (pun intended), emotionally excessive depictions of amour fou, Zulawski has built his own, hard-won ciné-cosmos without compromising an inch over the course of 13 features. Born in Lwow, now part of the Ukraine, he grew up in France, where his father Miroslaw, a writer and diplomat, worked at the Polish embassy and for UNESCO. Having studied philosophy and cinema in Paris, Zulawski returned to Poland, starting out as a journalist and writer, first publishing poems, followed by a novel in 1966, which was promptly censored. In the meantime he had become a protégé of another Andrzej, Wajda. Serving as assistant director on Samson (1961), a claustrophobic WWII drama set in the Warsaw Ghetto, and The Ashes (1965), an epic saga from the Napoleonic Wars, Zulawski managed to get a “made in collaboration with” credit on Wajda’s contribution to the international omnibus L’amour à vingt ans (1962) in between.
Real proof of an emerging talent came with two fluent, if still somewhat conventional half-hour shorts made for Polish television in 1967—the only black-and-white works by a bright colourist: Pavoncello, based on a story by The Ashes scribe Stefan Zeromski, and the Turgenev-inspired The Story of Triumphant Love (first broadcast in 1969) already scrutinize aspects of (mad) love in sparse historical settings, but Zulawski creates a rich, eerie atmosphere with few visual coups and a number of mysterious turns. (In the Turgenev short, a magic melody ensures that “those who love can do unusual things,” so a man who stabs his own heart with a huge kris emerges unscathed.) Yet the true Zulawskian frenzy was to be unleashed with his astonishing big-screen debut The Third Part of the Night (1971), establishing many key themes and stylistic ideas, and the director as someone to watch—not least by the Polish authorities. Though pleased with the film’s international festival success, they were considerably less so with its allegoric portrayal of life under oppressive rule. Inspired by conversations with his father, who is credited as co-writer, about his WWII experiences, Zulawski fashioned a decidedly downbeat, disorienting resistance tale, uplifted by hallucinatory forward thrust—a woman quoting the titular Bible passage at the start gets a painful rifle-butt to the head moments later from a soldier on horseback in her living room, then is brutally killed, along with her child. Shacking up with her pregnant doppelgänger (doubles abound in Zulawski), the husband vows to join the partisans and partakes in medical experiments as a cover, feeding his blood to lice in order to help create a typhus vaccine. The latter makes for the most surreal passages, but tellingly it’s taken directly from the life of dad Miroslaw. No matter how outlandish, Zulawski’s films are always based on personal experience.
Next he transposed the recent Polish student riots to the late 18th century for The Devil (1972), a film about idealism corrupted, conceived as an insane smorgasbord of brutal betrayal, with generous helpings of Hamlet. The punch line that the film’s Mephistophelian figure turns out to be rather feeble—the devil is not in the system, it is the system—was apparent to the censors this time, the film’s instant ban only lifted in 1988. Invited to leave the country, Zulawski relocated to France, rebounding with L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), a melodrama about love, pain, and the whole damn thing in a world of faked feelings. Sordid sex productions served as ideal backdrop for Zulawski’s idiosyncratic mix of intellectual reflection—most prominently, his relentless questioning of the artist’s role (in Cosmos, he’s changed Witold from a student to an aspiring writer)—and raw, uninhibitedly acted emotions. Taken with the film’s enormous success, the Polish authorities made Zulawski a carte blanche return offer he couldn’t refuse. With characteristic perversity, he picked “the saddest books I know,” his grand-uncle’s Jerzy’s influential “Lunar Trilogy” of early-20th-century science-fiction novels, to embark on his masterpiece, On the Silver Globe. It would remain, per the resulting film’s voiceover, a “stump of a movie.” After two years, the plug was pulled on the mammoth production, allegedly for going over budget, although one can imagine the shock of the politicians when seeing the rushes of Hieronymus Boschian visions, like a beachfront adorned with convicts impaled on 50-foot-poles. About a fifth of the script remained unshot, but belatedly learning that the original material had been saved from state-mandated destruction, Zulawski managed to salvage a 166-minute-version in 1988, with his narration of the plot gaps poetically wedded to images of contemporary Poland. Even so, On the Silver Globe remains a singular cinematic experience, challenged only a quarter-century later by Aleksei German’s posthumous Hard to Be a God (2013): it’s a monumental adventure of astronauts marooned on the barren moon (key location: Gobi Desert), but really an immersion in the coming and going of an entire civilization in all its aspects. It is essentially indescribable, but as a heady tour de force it may be the ecstatic epitome of Zulawskian mise en scène.
Within the next decade, the French would coin the word Zulawskienne for his divisive, distinctive direction that assaults the viewer with a barrage of roving, frantic, sometimes subjective and handheld camera takes and corresponding actorly transgressions. This manifests itself in primal scenes of excessive physicality and/or eruptive torrents of verbiage, consciously teetering on the brink between the philosophical and the absurd. Zulawski’s cinema has always been a take-no-prisoners proposition seemingly transmitted from the edge of a volcanic abyss, in the process trampling over many (but not all) niceties of conventional filmmaking with a manic energy that can be hard to take for some, revelatory to others. Starting with the English-language relationship monster movie Possession (1981), still his best-known work, he reinvented himself as a notorious maverick during a prolonged French exile. A maximalist cousin of David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), Possession was inspired by Zulawski’s painful separation and divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek (who played in his first two features), shot in the divided Berlin (making for a memorable time-capsule as well as a typically cryptic political allegory) and infused with an overwhelming bleakness that makes its deferred turn towards full-fledged fantastic horror seem inevitable in retrospect. After her first viewing, lead actress Isabelle Adjani, whose minutes-on-end-slobber-birth-breakdown scene in a metro station is legendary, called the result “psychological pornography” (and feigned a suicide attempt, according to Zulawski), then won a César to go with her Best Actress in Cannes (shared with her role in James Ivory’s Quartet). From there, the director’s ongoing succès de scandale continued down ’80s France’s neon-lit boulevards with two Dostoyevsky variations: in Le femme publique (1984), an inexperienced actress (Valérie Kaprisky) is cast for a film version of The Possessed, while L’amour braque (1985) takes The Idiot and puts it into crime-cinéma de look overdrive to repeatedly crash into the wall of contemporary indifference (“Impossible,” one character notes, “is a French word”). The general public was more concerned about Zulawski’s affair with his 18-year-old star Sophie Marceau, shockingly shedding her innocent-teen image from the super-hit La Boum (1980).
The outrage (and box-office drawing power) waned, but Zulawski and Marceau kept working till their private separation in 2001. Inaugurating a mellower phase, Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989) couples Marceau’s clairvoyant (whose outrageous revelations are inevitably greeted with grateful applause) with a genius computer programmer (Jacques Dutronc) afflicted by a brain tumour, the resulting memory loss a convenient hook for Zulawski’s preferred method of forging ahead through a fragmentary, but never arbitrary, dramaturgy. His musical side was given full reign in an adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godounov (1989) and The Blue Note (1991), chronicling the last days of Frédéric Chopin’s relationship with George Sand (he seems more fascinated by her daughter, played by Marceau) in a Zulawski-style refashioning of the Romantic era, equally melancholic and satiric. Returning to Poland for the superb She-Shaman (1996), Zulawski created another, strictly homegrown scandal, charting an amour fou in tribal terms, the psychotic deterioration crowned with a brain-splitting exit. Hated at home and long overlooked elsewhere, despite a marginal Venice screening, She-Shaman has only been acknowledged in the DVD era, which has garnered Zulawski an overdue overseas reputation, bolstered by a few recent retrospectives (only Possession had a US release, albeit in a heavily truncated version). Taking a sharp turn from She-Shaman’s unbridled aggression, La fidélité (2000) seemed a perfect goodbye—to filmmaking and to Marceau. A majestic and mature contemporary version of La Princesse de Clèves, just as distinctive as Manoel de Oliveira’s The Letter (1999), it peppered a deeply developed meditation on duty and honour versus passion and happiness with ludicrous sub-plots featuring unscrupulous paparazzi and stylized violence—a reminder that Zulawski is a really impressive action director.
Having said that he made every film as if it were his last since the beginning, Zulawski busied himself in the years since by living and writing (a lot). But regardless of the medium, Zulawski’s art has always been driven by the challenge of wrestling meaning from life. “I write because I’m a director. I shoot because I’m a writer,” he wrote in the introduction to one of his books’ French translations, and Cosmos offers him a felicitous opportunity for further investigation of the word’s filmic power, though with Zulawski’s twin strategy of amplification and deconstruction, language takes a backseat to speech, if not sound. Despite unique sensual pleasures, the film’s provocation may be resolutely cerebral, but Zulawski still tackles all-or-nothing subject matter, leaving no stone unturned. Or, maybe one should say, no leaf of grass unmoved, given the following Gombrowicz passage that perfectly encapsulates the driving idea of being constantly, concurrently, overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the cosmos, dumbstruck by the sheer enormity of impressions, too numerous to process in detail, yet also leaving Witold disappointed by the digestion resulting from his mind’s attempts to transform it into a whole: “At my feet the grass—the grass—consisting of stalks and blades whose individual positions—twists, slants, bends, desolations, crunches, desiccations—loomed before me, flashing, escaping, absorbed as they were by the totality of the grass that breathlessly stretched all the way to the mountains, but already under lock and key, dejected, condemned to itself…” Similarly condemned to themselves, the characters of Cosmos relentlessly try overcoming barriers, circling around each other and some elusive centre, only to be thwarted in their attempts, held at bay by a force that essentially remains (and must remain) mysterious. The enigma at the centre of Zulawski’s work is that he’s trying to film the unspeakable.
Unmistakably Zulawskian, Cosmos is nevertheless only moderately Zulawskienne. Surprisingly, its relative temperance hardly makes a difference. The intimate outlines of Gombrowicz’s novel—a few locations (the outdoors settings—swallowing sea, snowy mountains, dark woods—reliably inspiring the director’s metaphorical penchant), characters, and a simple plot—contain a multitude, and Zulawski follows suit, making a summary of the narrative a somewhat superfluous exercise, like drawing a map of sets and actors’ chalk-marks, when the essence of the enterprise is almost exclusively to be found in the choreography of images and gestures, bodies and sounds, of space and time. Zulawski’s directorial statement hints at the goings-on beyond the surface: “This novel by Witold Gombrowicz, certainly the one I admire most in his work, is a gem, a little perverse and sharp diamond. I had never thought of making a film out of it: perhaps due to my admiration, or perhaps because all adaptations of the writer have proven disappointing, or even ridiculous. The man was supremely intelligent, his writing capricious, full of intrigues veiled by a surreal humor, that is to say, in the simplest case, whimsical. Or—and—black…A thriller, a love story, an exploration of the human heart in its youth. A little frightening, very funny when it wants to.” Exactly Zulawski’s hunting ground, even as his comic side remains undervalued, especially by the French. Moved from Gombrowicz’s specific setting of southernmost Poland, 1939, to somewhere in Europe, about now (the language is French, the location Portuguese, the producer Paulo Branco), Cosmos briskly sets up its tonal coordinates, replete with stop-and-go synth-violin faux-cheese orchestrated by versatile regular Zulawski collaborator Andrzej Korzynski.
Already given to bursts of ranting, Witold (Jonathan Genet, ideal as a literary Romantic type) marches from a train station into the woods, discovers the hanged bird and instinctively examines it, only to wipe his hand afterwards in disgust. But the infection cannot be stopped. Witold meets a fishy old acquaintance—their previous relationship remains unaccounted for, like much else—named Fuchs (often also characterized by Gombrowicz as “carroty,” less so as played by Johan Libéreau) and the duo boards in the house of Madame Woytis (Sabine Azéma) and her husband Leon (Jean-François Balmer). Proceedings are ripe for misunderstandings developed in time-honoured farce tradition, but with a sinister bent. The boarders’ subsequent sleuthing-by-near-random-association also suggests a parody of detective story templates, yet the absurd details have uncanny inflections, like the disfigured lip of house servant Ginette (Clémentine Pons), lovingly nicknamed Catherette. The eerie close-up of Ginette’s face serving as a wake-up call, Witold and Fuchs soon obsess over connecting possible signs and pursuing perverse parallels, heatedly debating in between: Witold’s fixation on the servant’s mouth is transferred on Madame Woytis’ fetching, but recently married daughter Lena (Victoria Guerra). Loaded gestures are studied intensely, especially hand movements around cutlery during dinner, while Leon dispenses doting life lessons punctuated by his enigmatic private sing-song-pronunciation and little rituals (small balls of bread, grains of salt). Then there’s the hanged piece of wood in the backyard, undoubtedly hinting at a serial executioner of very peculiar persuasion. Not to mention the “arrows” the duo detects in dirt patches on the ceiling and the like, to be diligently followed, uncovering an ever more elusive trail…
“When will I awake from being awake,” Witold wonders at some point, but Cosmos is hardly dreamy—the only oneiric phrase regularly applied to Zulawski’s hallucinatory films is “fever dream.” Part of the sickness from which this fever springs is intermittent logorrhea, with monological harangues lingering more prominently than the dialogue battles—or the hushed exchanges serving as crucial counterpoint. The interior narration of Witold’s stream-of-consciousness remembrance from Gombrowicz’s novel is translated into big chunks of external verbiage, at times delivered literally in-your-face as Witold dashes in close-up from one scene to the next. Zulawski’s patented mobile camera style, ever-sliding between characters, mostly keeps a medium-shot distance this time around, his brusque transitions and disorienting edits—the finale is particularly inspired—not exactly the time-mosaic-staccato suggested by the welter of digressions and detailed associations in the book: Cosmos is closer to late-period Resnais than to early work of this French fellow traveller in sophisticated surrealism. (That Resnais’ actress-widow Azéma plays the cataleptic Madame freezing at inopportune moments adds an in- to the joke.) Though Cosmos is hardly lacking in perversity, sex, and violence, not to mention fierce freak-out acting spectaculars, the manic(-depressive) tone of earlier films has been replaced by a state of constant agitation. Zulawski diligently conjures the restlessness evoked by the novel’s narrator at a particularly absurd juncture: “But my standing was becoming increasingly irresponsible, even insane, I had no right to stand, this is IMPOSSIBLE, I HAVE TO GO…yet I stood.”
Himself standing firm with regards to his proclivities, Zulawski maintains this nervous tension, a little too frenetic for full-on-comedy, only accentuated by trademark dollops of obscure horror and emotional outbursts, even as he freely inserts his usual counterpoint proto-slapstick and heated, digressive debates about art and pop culture, as passionate as they are parodic, especially regarding literature (“Sartre,” Witold pontificates, “was hideous, except that he wrote Nausea”), film (including a pun on Zulawski’s own L’important c’est d’aimer, but c’mon: Luc Bresson?) and comics (Edgar P. Jacobs’ The Mystery of the Great Pyramid serves as one fetish object). Zulawski’s films always contain such reflexive reminders, but in Cosmos the strategy proves especially fruitful. Like the characters, the filmmaker builds his absurd cosmos from minimal means. More unusual is the film’s focus on men. Despite some great male performances (like Sam Neill’s in Possession or Francis Huster’s very different turns as the possessed The Possessed director and the resident idiot in the Dostoyevsky variations), women usually rule Zulawski’s films—here, their unknowability simply leaves the immature guys stranded in the dark, lost in their perplexing cosmos-building.
The key performance may be Chabrol-Ruiz veteran Balmer’s irresistible turn as aged, but certainly not matured paterfamilias, who has receded into a private world of kinky mini-pleasures, given to the juiciest expressions of barely sublimated obscenity, especially his onanistic onomatopoetry, the endlessly combinable centrepiece of his wordplay being “bleurgh,” per the English subtitles. The novel’s most recent English translation by Danuta Borchardt had used a simpler “berg,” but wouldn’t the world be poorer without Bleurghson, Spielbleurgh, and Bleurghman? No matter how ridiculously expressed, the unspeakable is still what Zulawski’s art tries to wrestle from life. That he gives Gombrowicz’s hilarious non-sequitur ending—his wife’s dinner announcement—pride of place as the big final quote before he does one of his end-credits meta-showstoppers, serves as a reminder that common-sense logic proves an unsatisfactory tool in the absurd maelstrom of life’s (and art’s) sensations, no matter how seemingly insignificant: “One must understand what is the drop that makes the cup overflow. What is it that’s ‘too much?’ There is something like an excess of reality, a swelling beyond endurance,” Witold muses in Gombrowicz’s novel. By the end of both book and film, the equilibrium of existence has been so thoroughly pierced that the bird might as well have hanged itself.