Watching an Andrzej Zulawski film can be quite an adventure. Before his sudden death earlier this year on the eve of the New York Film Festival premier of Cosmos, Zulawski’s career spanned five decades…. a career that resulted in 13 highly idiosyncratic and propulsive features that not only quite often enraged the censors of his native Poland and got him banned from working there, but endeared him to the hearts of cult film purists around the world.
His most recognizable film came in 1981 with Possession, starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill in what has to be the most perverse and uncomfortable exploration of marital deterioration ever screened. My personal favorite Zulawski film is On the Silver Globe, an epic three hour science fiction effort adapted from a novel by author and granduncle Jerzy Zulawski (written in 1901!) that he started working on in the mid 70’s and then had production shut down when a new Minister of Culture took over in the late 70’s. Finally released (albeit in a truncated form) in 1988, On the Silver Globe is a mammoth achievement of mud, grime, blood, allegory and feverish vision whose aesthetic and tone firmly clenches the senses and never lets go.
And feverish is the best word to describe all of Zulawski’s films. There’s a certain madness that infuses his work. His characters volley from high laughter to crushing depression in the span of a few seconds. Speech is a toy, often mutilated and toyed with, such as the bank robbing gang of hooligans in Mad Love (1985), whose aphorisms and long monologues barely even make sense with the subtitle option selected. And in Cosmos, all of these characteristics are present, although unfortunately, it’s a film that feels disjointed, labored and worthy of the jabs of pretentious artifice intermittently tossed at Zulawski throughout his oeuvre.
More of a chamber piece than Zulawski has attempted in the past, Cosmos follows young Witold (Jonathan Genet) and his friend Fuchs (Johan Libreau) as they retreat from their confusing early twenties lives and stay at a French guest house run by Madam Wotis (Sabine Azema).
Hardly any less overwrought than the outside world, Witold finds himself immersed in Wotis and her family’s hectic existence. Led by the Madam’s own bouts of sudden statuesque-freeze-frame- freakout when she gets too excited, the other problem is Witold’s unrequited affection for her daughter, Catherine (Clementine Pons), recently arrived in the household with her new husband. Seemingly happy, Witold holds a quiet fascination with Catherine and their relationship grows in weird and unexplained mannerisms.
In a dual role, Pons also plays maid Ginette, the servant of the household who seems to understand and know more of what’s happening inside this quaint estate than she lets on. Coupled with all the internal melodrama, Zulawski also tosses in mysterious gestures outside the home as well. On his daily walks, Witold begins to discover dead birds hanging in methodically constructed tableauxs. Ginette’s cat — never one to be found easily — seems to have also gone missing permanently. Needless to say, there’s a lot of heavy stuff going on in Cosmos. Would one expect anything less with a film of such a grandiose title?
Perhaps my disappointment with the film lies in the hollow performance of lead character Witold. More of a cipher than a flesh and blood entity, Genet looks confused and introspective and dark, but nothing truly resonates. In so many previous Zulawski films, he’s needled tortured and seismic performances from his (mostly) female leads that become larger than life. I didn’t get that feeling here. In fact, Witold comes off as something closer to Zulawski’s faded idea of the ’emo’ generation.
Leaden performances aside, Cosmos also suffers from an abundance of ideas, emotions and armchair psychology that feels less like plot and more like extraneous fluff around a story that, ultimately, comes down to Witold and Catherine sidestepping the static of their world and connecting on a basic level. The final few minutes, oblique and perhaps the most worthy portion of a repeat viewing, aims for the lofty goals of its title, but too much of Cosmos dwells on the tweaks and twerks of its characters without providing a solid base of affection for them.
This criticism could be levied at any of his films. Even though Cosmos failed for me personally, Zulawski’s film (and other films when they can be found on sparse home video options) should be celebrated and seen regardless of the derision. Anyone who so defied his country’s censorship deserves that small patronage.
Cosmos opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area at the Texas Theatre on Friday, August 5.