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New Release Review - COSMOS

Two young men check into a mysterious boarding house.






Review by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)

Directed by: Andrzej Zulawski

Starring: Sabine Azema, Jean-Francois Balmer, Jonathan Genet, Johan Libéreau, Clementine Pons



Even if not all of its ideas work, Cosmos proffers enough compelling ones that play off of each other in interesting ways to ensure that Zulawski’s last film should be seen and remembered.



Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, best known perhaps for his 1981 erotic/demonic thriller, Possession, passed away earlier this year from cancer. Fortunately, he lived long enough to complete Cosmos, for which he won the Best Director award at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival. Though it may not be a perfect swansong, Cosmos is nevertheless a probingly intelligent film with an energetic sense of fun and insanity.

Adapting the Witold Gombrowicz novel, Zulawski opens the film with a young law student, also named Witold (a twistingly emotive Jonathan Genet) who stumbles across a hanged sparrow as he emerges from the woods while quoting poetry. Disquieted, Witold rejoins his fashion industry friend, Fuchs (an eminently likable Johan Libéreau), as they look for a place to spend a weeklong vacation, Witold having failed his exams and wanting to get away. They settle on a boarding house run by Mme. Woytis (Sabine Azéma, the skilled, if a bit theatrical, widow of Alain Resnais) and her second husband, Léon (Jean-François Balmer).


Not long after the friends settle in, weird things begin happening: Fuchs spends his nights out and returns in the morning with black eyes, more birds turn up dead, and Witold begins to fall precipitously in love with Mme Woytis’ daughter, Lena (Victória Guerra), who is engaged to another man. Does Lena reciprocate Witold’s frenzied emotions in the same frenzied way? Who has been killing the animals? And how do all of these things affect the novel that Witold is in the process of drafting in growing bouts of derangement?

These are questions to be philosophically contemplated rather than answered: The strength of Cosmos lies in its succession of finely wrought tones; mystery, romance, farce, and poetic profundity all gracefully cede the dominant tone to one another to create a thoughtful, interesting cinematic meditation on love, art, and a strange unnamed crazed human essence. The continuous appearance of murdered animals will unnerve just as much as Sabine Azéma’s frenzied stupors will amuse. The moments when Witold and Lena show signs of mutual madness and affection will move as much as the impish charm of the gently bisexual Fuchs. What’s great about Cosmos is that all these different tones work together instead of detracting from one another. Its mix of sinister darkness, high comedy, earnest emotion, and formal experimentation make the film consistently surprising and watchable, and even if the parts never coalesce into a truly, deeply meaningful whole, you still get the sense that Cosmos is a smart film that’s more than the sum of its parts.


Though Zulawski is Polish, Cosmos is a French film. And though Zulawksi infuses the film with a maddened spirit that strongly evokes his Polish predecessors, Roman Polanski and Wojciech Has, a French New Wave sensibility resonates throughout Cosmos. Young students, literary quotes, jump cuts, and brilliant disregard for narrative coherence make Zulawski’s film feel a little like Pierrot le Fou (1965) or Weekend (1967). Jonathan Genet even has the same haircut that Jean-Pierre Léaud sported while also playing a despondent student in Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973). Andrzej Korzynski’s effective music swells, creating an emotional response, only to cut abruptly as a scene continues, leaving us to question the responses we had moments before - a sort of trick Godard often used (especially in Contempt (1963)). Like in many New Wave films, these choices are often emotionally and intellectually provocative. Sometimes, however, it seems to distract from the film’s more central, urgent energy. Fuchs, who is largely treated as Witold’s less intellectual foil, jokily reveals his pure ignorance of Robert Bresson in one scene, only to, minutes later, express his deep fondness for and familiarity with Pasolini’s Teorema (1968). The overt references do make the film richly intertextual, but sometimes they are antithetical to the film’s characterisations, which, despite the amorphous narrative, are more or less consistent in Cosmos.

A similar, much more distracting weakness involves how Cosmos deals with literature. Zulawski makes Cosmos beautifully cinematic in the way it drips with imagery charged with poetic meaning, but Zulawksi stifles imagist moments by making the film too talky. In one scene, as Fuchs and Witold share a tender sleepy moment at a vacation house, Fuchs asks Witold during one of the latter’s frequent bouts of grandiloquence: “how can I listen to the silence if you blah blah?” Cosmos is heavy on blah blah in a similar way as Xavier Dolan’s newest film, It’s Only the End of the World, was. Both films feature near constant close ups of actors’ faces contorted with theatrical emotion, exhibiting symptoms of incurable logorrhea. Ironically, Cosmos sabotages some of its own visual poetry through Witold’s perpetual quotation of written poetry. It’s not like Zulawksi is anti-cinematic in showing the pained literary process of a potential madman; the moments in which a possessed-looking Witold clacks furiously into his computer as he furiously spits vitriolic words are pretty effective. But the film’s insistence on reproducing large chunks of poetry and prose crowd and dampen the film’s stronger aspects.


Still, even if Cosmos may have been as relentlessly talky as It’s Only the End of the World, the good news is that it’s a lot more fun. Early on, Witold says (again quoting poetry), staring directly into the camera with a dead-serious face: “The savage power of the stupid thought.” He proceeds to repeat the quote doing his best Donald Duck voice. Behind the grimness, behind the unconsummated passion, behind the dead animals, behind the Stendhal idolisation, Cosmos is bouncy, experimental fun. During the closing credits, Zulawski does what Fellini did at the end of the underrated And the Ship Sails On (1983): he takes us behind the scenes, showing us things like crew members setting up lights or Guerra getting her make-up done. This ending makes Cosmos’ power brilliantly clear: just as Witold tries out different words and sentences for his novel, Zulawski and his team tried out different ideas in the film. And even if not all of the ideas work, Cosmos proffers enough compelling ones that play off of each other in interesting ways to ensure that Zulawski’s last film should be seen and remembered.

Cosmos is in cinemas August 19th.




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