Andrzej Żuławski’s final film before his death in early 2017 was also his first after a 15-year hiatus. Known for his wildly high-strung and expressionistic style of filmmaking, the Polish-born, France-based writer and director often polarized audiences and critics with an uncompromising view of love and politics.
His most famous work, 1981’s Possession, featured a terrifically terrifying performance by French actress Isabelle Adjani, who would win the Best Actress Prize at the Cannes Festival for her role in the film as well as her first Cesar Award (France’s equivalent of the Academy Award). Possession had the dubious honour of being placed on the Video Nasties List, a list by the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association in the UK that deemed certain films as potentially harmful (due to their sex and violence content) to young children.
Żuławski was no stranger to controversy; he had already been exiled in his native Poland after too many clashes with the authorities over his artistic and political statements in film. Having moved to France, his work flourished and, intermittently throughout his career, he became the toast of the town, producing startling works that provoked, enthralled and frustrated his audiences to no end.
Cosmos, his 2015 send-off, picks up where he left off the last time he was behind a camera. Full of bizarre and affected rituals of human behaviour, Cosmos is the story of a strangely dysfunctional family and two boarders who come to stay at their household. Witold (Jonathan Genet), an aspiring writer and one of the borders (from whose point the story is told), is unnerved one day when, while walking through the woods, he sees a dead bird hanging from a string. He relates the story to his fellow lodger, Fuchs (Johan Libéreau) who dismisses Witold’s unrest on the account that he is being paranoid and silly. But Witold can’t let go of it and continues to return to the dead bird whenever he gets a free moment.
Jonathan Genet as Witold
Meanwhile, the erratic and eccentric family he is staying with have their own assortment of personal quirks. The daughter of the household has caught the romantic attention of Witold — but she’s married to a hopelessly amicable and suicidal architect. She may also be the culprit who is hanging birds in the woods and scrawling cryptic messages on Witold’s bedroom ceiling. All throughout this, husband and wife of the household bicker about everything and nothing. What does this all mean?
If you’ve ever watched a Żuławski film, you know exactly what you’re in for: an ever-expanding galaxy of overwhelming esotericism — the kind that will have some viewers transfixed to the screen with rapt attention and others running full-speed for the closest exit. Cosmos is no different in its extremes compared to his other works. But unlike the disturbing and frenzied Possession or the wildly romantic and baroque L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), Cosmos seems pitched more toward a narrative of happenstance rather than a sort of controlled chaos that the director normally practiced in his work.
Trying to place Żuławskian logic within the conventions of a la pièce bien faite will prove futile. The only true option one has is to fully submit to the shifting and collapsing narrative structures and the driving intuitive forces behind them. Such is the case with Cosmos, which many critics have astutely described as the closest thing the filmmaker ever came to making a real comedy.
To be sure, there are many comic moments scattered about. But the absurdity of the film’s whole makes the comic elements nearly indistinguishable from the tragic ones. Tragicomedy might be the better term to describe the film. But even that term doesn’t capture the careening surrealism here that encompasses those narrative constituents.
Jean-François Balmer as Léon
The brilliance and the frustration of Cosmos is watching the at once flowing and jarring social interactions of Żuławski’s cast, whose twitchy and highly affected movements onscreen work to further mystify the already baffling narrative at large. Despite being a family in which personal boundaries are dismantled to allow a particularly unhealthy enmeshment to emerge, there is a glowing warmth and charm that emanates from their collective hijinks. Scenes which would appear heinously obscene in the engagements of real life seem jovial and even endearing here. It’s not without a deliberately incited sense of guilt that the viewer can watch scenes of a family commiserating over a hung cat or a hung man with the feeling of homely and snug comfort; Żuławski makes a point of seeking out the most unlikeliest moments in which to manifest the sentiments of longing and nostalgia and whether one finds that manipulative or a testament to a filmmaker’s ingenuity will depend on his or her tolerance for a dissenting contrivance in storytelling.
Kino Lorber has the honour of presenting the Polish director’s final film on Blu-ray. It’s a parting gift that has been put together extremely well with a very clean and clear transfer, free of any image problems. Żuławski was a filmmaker whose use of visuals was unique and very much his own. His use of colour in film often worked in contrasts (see the pink on orange clashing throughout 1984’s La Femme Publique). In Cosmos the colours, though still very rich and deeply toned, seem a little muted, opting for a more subdued colour palette favouring reds, coffee browns, fern greens and blacks. Kino Lober’s transfer wonderfully renders these colours so that they are luminous and healthy-looking.
The sound is very clear and, like in all Żuławski films, music is very important. There’s a purposefully over-the-top sentimentality to the film score which underlines the grand theatrics of the emotions on display. The film is in French with optional English subtitles.
Extras include an audio commentary by film historian Daniel Bird, a making-of featurette, a video essay, and an introduction to the film by the director as well as the producer. Rounding out the package is an essay booklet with further details on the film.
Most Żuławski films can be better appreciated on a second viewing. Cosmos may take up to four, if you are willing to expend the effort to penetrate a most difficult ground of promethean design. Indeed, Żuławski isn’t for everyone. But those who loved what the filmmaker was able to produce in a breathlessly madcap body of work will go into the film headfirst and fearless. This, at its heart, is a very human story born from rudiments both otherworldly and oneiric. Cosmos is all about just exactly what its title alludes to: a universe beyond the one that we know.