Director: Andrzej Żuławski
Synopsis: Two men at a crossroads looking for some time away to refocus rent a room in a strange family’s home and find themselves solving one important mystery: who hung the sparrow?
Overview: It had been fifteen years since Andrzej Żuławski gifted us with a film, and then Cosmos came along. Knowing his work, there couldn’t possibly be a better swan song for his sad passing in February of this year. Cosmos is an adaptation of the book by the same name by Witold Gombrowicz, “A dark, quasi-detective novel, Cosmos follows the classic noir motif to explore the arbitrariness of language, the joke of human freedom, and man’s attempt to bring order out of chaos in his psychological life.” Gombrowicz is notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen, but Żuławski does so with a near-flawless grace using the artform to its fullest potential, employing urgency in acting and editing to channel the urgency found in the novel. No matter which medium you choose, both are a total delight.
Witold (Jonathan Genet) is in law school and has failed his exams and Fuchs (Johan Libéreau) has just quit his job in fashion. Together they seek solitude in the country, each for his own reasons. To save money, they rent rooms in the Woytis family home filled with captivatingly insane characters. Oddly enough, this turns out to be a place where they fit in completely as they wrestle with their own internal struggles with insanity and distract themselves with a murder mystery involving a sparrow, a cat, and unrequited love.
First and foremost, Cosmos presents itself like an absurdist play. Every scene and character involved captures the experience of the theatre, leading to a fantastic manifestation of the true meaning of that worn-out Shakespearean phrase, “all the world’s a stage.” Żuławski is known for embracing hysteria and teasing out over the top dramatic performances and Cosmos doesn’t disappoint. Often hilarious and at times disturbing, the level of humanity shown is almost thrilling. To film in French was a strong move: only the French can reach that level of hysteria and manage to pull it off with that amount of believability. Viewers who can take in the film in French without subtitles will enjoy an extra dose of puns and figures of speech that are unable to be translated with the same weight and effectiveness.
Every character is fascinating in their performance, no matter how small their part. Sabine Azéma stands out as Madame Woytis, a red-headed, chain smoking caricature of a woman who freezes like a mannequin when too excited. Jean-François Balmer as Leon is an absolute treat, speaking hidden profound truths in his jibber jabber and taking “senile old man” to another level. But Jonathan Genet as Witold is the star of the show, his obsessive nature and manic monologues drawing us in and spinning us until we aren’t sure which direction we’re facing.
Cosmos is rife with symbolism, especially that of mouths and hands. The smallest movements of both are exaggerated and the camera focuses intensely on them. Each shot lets us in on a secret if we care to notice. The camera peers from hidden places, showing us what’s beneath and behind, panning around the room displaying a living diorama or as if viewing a train car passing by. Sometimes dialogue and behaviour makes no sense: it’s often bizarre, mouths gaping, characters lapsing into Donald Duck voice acting, or imitating apes. A special scene involves dropping a bowl of peas and the whole family rushing in a cacophonous flurry to gather them up, each doing something unrelated, unhelpful and totally random. No matter where the eye is drawn, the audience will see something different and special in every frame, every time.
It’s refreshing to see characters who move with freedom of emotion and expression. Cosmos is cathartic viewing for people who feel constrained by societal expectations and false normalcy. This film is for people who love words, love the theatre, and love raw visceral expression of emotion. Anyone who has experienced unrequited or restricted love will relate to Witold’s melodramatic madness, his writing that becomes more frantic and emotional as time passes, and his total obsession with finding beauty and meaning in his surroundings.
Cosmos is a solid film that will impress Żuławski fans and perhaps even his toughest critics. However, it’s likely to be polarizing as its chaotic, meandering style will put a crick in the neck of some viewers. Still, it’s worth an experimental viewing while you can still get your hands on it on Netflix.
Featured Image: Kino Lorber