Director: Andrzej Zulawski
France/Portugal Comedy 100mins
Andrzej Zulawski gets in and amongst it with COSMOS, his first feature in 15 years. This French-language adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel is a top-to-bottom fever dream, extending the Polish filmmaker’s penchant for mania with an exceptionally reference-heavy tale of wham-bam obsession. Seconds in and we have a melodramatic score, jolting jump-cuts, opaque voiceover, plush pans and a narrative that proceeds onward like a furious sprint through a theatrical downpour. What’s not to love?
Plenty. With viscous plot and rake-thin premise (make what you will of that narrative contradiction), many a good film has been made. But it’s nigh-on impossible for any of the myriad ideas put forth here to take hold with any lasting thematic coherence. With a slickly-rendered attention-deficit (the real glue that holds his surgical focus together), Zulawski promotes his rococo vision by piling meta-echoes upon meta-echoes with such off-puttingly ugly verbosity that the engineered madness, a kind of ad hoc lo-budget ornamentalism with the hyper-jittery frame-rate of a TV movie, becomes the entire raison d’etre. It forewarns the impatient: fall for the first minute and the next 101 are a treat.
Otherwise, pith off: “You are just a face, a mask. Behind it, there is nothing.” But what a mask! Memorably gaunt-cheeked, sunken-eyed, Jonathan Genet plays Witold, a law school dropout who arrives with his pal Fuchs (Johan Libéreau) at a family-run bed-and-breakfast (with breakfast-in-bed) in Portugal with dreams of writing his first novel—and finds no shortage of inspiration there. Rocked by inexplicable spasms that run through his face like an electrical current, Witold falls for the whole affair: the gobbledygook-gabbling patriarch Leon Wojtys (Jean-François Balmer), his long-suffering wife (Sabine Azema), their daughter Lena (Victoria Guerra) and even the deformed lip of family maid Catherette (Clementine Pons). A murder mystery runs beneath all of the feigned and strained emotionalism: a sparrow, a cat and pieces of wood are all found hanged on the guesthouse’s premises.
Words, words, words. Tongue twists abound in this hotchpotch of “chasms, patterns, strata, rhythms, wounds, spasms,” and the crazed maximalism and heightened delirium make this a dramatic exercise rather than a drama per se: when one character breaks down into tears, it’s impossible to engage with the material due to the heightened delirium—and just when a scene threatens to convince us into something resembling a consistent mood, Zulawski hangs the string score in mid-air: just when we thought we were in, he wrenches us back out. As Witold himself remarks, “She is impenetrable, elusive and vast like the ceiling.” There are enough highbrow references and self-deprecating winks, meanwhile, to keep a certain crowd chuckling away to publicise their own understanding of this essentially self-serving work.
There’s an unconsummated eroticism at play here. All of the film’s secret, underlying energies are contained in Guerra, whose Lena is subtly flirtatious with and increasingly exasperating to Witold. Guerra’s beauty is her ordinary (and unexceptionally photographed) face, which explodes in later scenes into outrageously striking frivolity, tongue out between perfect teeth and eyes to be read as one wishes. In truth, it’s a test of one’s patience whenever she’s not onscreen—and the film carries all of its weight when she is. MICHAEL PATTISON
ON RELEASE FROM 19 AUGUST 2016 | LOCARNO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTlVAL | BEST DIRECTOR 2015 WINNER |