Jonathan Genet in Cosmos (2015)

Harelips and Dead Birds: Looking for Meaning in ‘Cosmos’

Zulawski's final film is a parody of romantic impulses.

Where to begin? Evidently at the ending, since this is the final film of the late Andrzej Zulawski, one of the most original, passionate, kinetic and crazy filmmakers in cinema.

To describe the story in rational terms, which is inappropriate, it’s about a romantically deranged young student named Witold (Jonathan Genet) who takes lodging with a demented family: a hyperactive red-haired landlady (Sabine Azéma) given to bouts of paralysis, her nonsense-spouting second husband (Jean-Francois Balmer), her sexy daughter (Victória Guerra) and son-in-law (Andy Gillet), the hairlipped maid (Clémentine Pons) who’s an unnoticed double of an unrelated character, and a polymorphously sexual fellow lodger (Johan Libéreau).

Witold, who likes quoting things, becomes obsessed with finding clues and making connections. This is triggered by the hanging corpse of a sparrow in the woods, a discovery that leads him to wild surmises and actions in his quest for sense. In this he must be defeated, for he’s a character from a novel by Poland’s Witold Gombrowicz, who doesn’t believe in dramatic meaning or character development or cause and effect any more than his mentor Stanislaw Witkiewicz.

Gombrowicz’s play The Marriage is about how character is a fluid fabrication born of moment-to-moment relationships, and Cosmos seems to be about how everything is connected and unified by the impossibility of connection and unification beyond what one projects onto one’s surroundings. I confess to having read and forgotten this novel years ago.

Thus, the latter half of the movie officially falls apart into an outing where the characters cross a snowy mountain and wander in gorgeous green woods near a cliff house by the sea. A bunch more inexplicable stuff happens to confirm, in the words of Twain, that those in search of a plot will be shot. What we have instead are moments of pure image, feeling and movement. On that front, André Szankowski’s digital photography and Andrzej Korzyński’s symphonic score are firmly on the side of beauty.

Zulawski’s highly kinetic films are marked by both intellectualism and lack of restraint, emotionally or aesthetically. In this sense, the final film is relatively sedate, which isn’t saying much. It’s also relatively distant and dispassionate, having a more academic feel that may emerge from being a based on a novel. Mind you, it’s an avant-garde novel, so still a bit of a mind-boggle. Also, Zulawski has referred to Gombrowicz before, as in The Public Woman (1984), loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Demons.

Those familiar with Zulawski’s larger-than-life emotional expressions know that he’s never less than committed to feeling, and this film’s feelings are both opaque and mischievous. A parody of romantic impulses rather than true romanticism. In other words, this film feels more like a minor effort, even though it was his first film in 15 years and proved, unfortunately, his last. He died in February of this year.

The extras are an unimportant intro from a film festival, a trivial making-of, two trailers, and a short critical essay that spends more time on what’s not in the film than what is.

To those looking for more “accessible” Zulawski, we recommend the outrageous psychological horror film and study of a marriage called Possession (1981), in which Isabelle Adjani gives one of her most astonishing performances — perhaps one of the most astonishing performances — of any actress in any movie.

RATING 6 / 10