Cosmos, Andrzej Zulawski’s first film in fifteen years, had its World Premiere this week at the 2015 Locarno International Film Festival. Transplanting the story from Poland to Portugal, Cosmos — an adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel — is a chaotic and paranoid comedy about the irrationality of the human mind. In many ways a return to form as Zulawski embraces themes of hysteria, paranoia and eroticism, Cosmos is nonetheless a minor work from the filmmaker. The density of the source material ends up being the film’s greatest flaw, contributing a largely nonsensical and distant narrative. While the overall experience is worthwhile, it is frustrating and often unrewarding.
Escaping to the country for a reprise from the responsibilities of big city life, Witold (Jonathan Genet) and Fuchs (Johan Libéreau) stay at a French family-owned bed and breakfast where they become increasingly obsessed by a mystery that haunts the backwoods. Perhaps the closest thing to a comedy that Zulawski has ever made, the mystery that catapults the film forward is a sparrow hanging from a string that Witold can’t resist squeezing tightly in his fist — testing, perhaps, if it might still be possessed by the spark of life. The tameness of this impetus only exaggerates the intensity of the madness it inspires, and — in true Zulawski form — the increased paranoia and increased hysteria in a household already gripped deeply by eccentricity.
There are many poetic moments drawn from this storyline. The most notable is a bizarre, if not erotically charged scene between Witold and Lena (Victória Guerra), the married daughter of his lodger. As the family has another tension-filled dinner, unbeknownst to most people at the table, Witold and Lena start mirroring each other’s actions. Running fingers along spoons and napkins, they revel in the sensations these objects inspire, and for a moment it feels like a different film: in these repeated actions, the characters suddenly lost in touch feel liberated for the first time.
The film’s zaniness often doesn’t quite hit the mark, and what does work is more of a credit to the actors than it is to the filmmaking. Somewhat self-indulgent, Zulawski drifts occasionally into late Jean Pierre Jeunet-level preciousness. The film’s flat and European TV-quality production only further detracts from the fantasy, with even some nice compositions overwhelmed by the colour palette and depth of field. The weirdness just doesn’t make much sense, and while that has not always been a deal-breaker in Zulawski’s work, in this case, the more whimsical tone undermines any of the emotional impact of the film’s tonal and emotional excess.
Overall, Cosmos feels more like a parody of Zulawski’s work than a larger part of it. More silly than gripping, the movie is emotionally unreachable in spite of some brighter spots. Zulawski makes some lovely touches in his updated locale, with passing references to Joe Dassin and Fernando Pessoa that add a pop cultural freshness to the Portuguese landscape: Zulawski’s dense frame of reference is a continued source of magistry. However, that does little to aid the off-putting tone of the film, which presents chaos as a joke without much grounding.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.