Director: Andrzej Żuławski
Screenplay: Andrzej Żuławski
Cast: Jean-François Balmer (as Leon); Sabine Azéma (as Madame Woytis); Jonathan Genet (as Witold); Johan Libéreau (as Fuchs); Victória Guerra (as Lena); Clémentine Pons (as Catherette / Ginette)
Synopsis: Taking residence in a family run country guesthouse, Witold (Jonathan Genet) and Fuchs (Johan Libéreau) believe themselves to be in the midst of a mystery when Witold finds a dead bird hung by its neck on a branch. Witold, visibly in emotional turmoil from the start, is nonetheless convinced of this mystery as further strange sights disrupt his reality - the maid Catherette's (Clémentine Pons) lip disfigurement, a tea kettle in a tree, strange images marked on the wall - as everyone around him in the family is as eccentric and in the midst of their own emotional angst. One such figure, the married daughter Lena (Victória Guerra), becomes a singular obsession for him.
Żuławski directing a comedy of manners? Words I'd never expect to write but with Żuławski unpredictability is his forte; like the best and true definers of auteur theory, they are never predictable in the types of genre they blend and tackle. With Żuławski as well, much of his filmography is still difficult to acquire; the bias of Possession (1981) as the key film of his career, and the only film of his most will see, does have a drastic effect on your attitude of his filmography as a whole. Cosmos, based on a novel by legendary Polish author Witold Gombrowicz, whose namesake fittingly travels through this modernised parody of a mystery, is certainly a 180 degree turn from the stereotypical view of his films but very much in his wheelhouse, the only difference is that whilst the likes of Diabel (1971) have characters constantly screaming about death and misery, this is a farce where a family and their paying guests constantly scream about how each other doesn't understand them or how they have unrequited feelings for another whilst they're trying to collect all the peas dropped on the kitchen floor, the childish older patriarch Leon (Jean-François Balmer) sticking cocktail sticks into one at a time and lining them up in a straight line.
The film is exceptionally dense just in the literary and cinematic references alone, the dialogue and the story needing multi watches to fully digest, but the significant idea behind Cosmos is to deliberately take the piss out of the mystery genre, where in the end none of the strange circumstances Witold encounters are anything else but odd coincidences or a result of someone's angst, even he going as far as contributing to the events with a very severe, if not most severe, incident involving the pet cat. Tailed by his trusting friend Fuchs, smartly dressed but appearing in each scene with new bloody noses and bruises each morning from constantly disastrous cruising nights, they have to wrap their heads around the guesthouse owners and their quirks. The matriarch Madame Woytis (Sabine Azéma), who can get so overwhelmed she actually freezes in the spot for a period of time like a malfunctioning machine. Leon, whose dialogue at first is witty and henpecked by his wife, but starts to take on childish plays on words and more swearing as he goes along. Their maid Catherette who is baring a small lip disfigurement is the sanest person in the house, but with someone in the family who's also played by Clémentine Pons later on in the film And Lena, the object of Witold's overwhelming obsession, who sleeps on a bed without the mattress on the springs, doesn't react to severe events as the viewer would presume her to, and whose husband first appears dressed as Tintin.
As the mystery is ultimately a farce, you are instead turning your attention to the world and its little details; a "metaphysical noir thriller" according to its late director, the title Cosmos is apt in how ultimately the mystery Witold is obsessed with is insignificant to the literal cosmos of human behaviour, able to see a rake etched in water stain in the corner of the wall but completely blind to the significantly bigger sexual symbolism in the same spot in the lounge. As Witold reacts violently to each odd event which bursts his personal bubble, even beating his chest like a deranged gorilla at the dinner table, everyone's internal emotions are literalised as part of Żuławski's trademark, slapstick for him kinetic and as exhausting for the characters themselves as it will be for some viewers. All Witold is able to find is absurdities with little connection, instead the real mystery to be found in dealing with his emotions for Lena, her emotions for him back and how her husband, a likable guy himself, reacts badly when he pegs what is taking place between them as they all decide to go to a summer cottage to escape the stress of the hostel.
Żuławski's style is entirely artificial, very much against the notion of realism throughout his career which is hence why his most well known trademark, the hyper stylised and extreme acting style, is what it is. Restraining his use of prowling camera movements for his final film, although it makes his prescience known gliding through the guesthouse corridor and tracking characters along through their monologues, the irony of his hyper dynamic style tackling a genre which would seem safe is fitting for such an openly brazen and intelligence person to conclude on, able to get away with actor Jonathan Genet doing one scene directly to the camera, in extreme close-up by himself, in a Donald Duck voice and it making perfect sense.
The dialogue in particular, in testament to translator and Żuławski documenter Daniel Bird for creating English subtitles for a film this quickly paced and dense, is a huge chunk of Cosmos' style. Restraining himself in terms of the more extreme moments of his career - from a man who had Isabelle Adjani writhing around in white milky liquid in the subway to On the Silver Globe (1988) and its mass anal impaling crucifixion - or in the use of constantly moving camera, the dialogue is still rapid fire and breath taking to follow, each character having individualistic quirks to them seen in their dialogue which, even if you were to struggle with at times, still paints their character in the poetic flourishes they use; that Żuławski has no qualms with referencing anything from himself to even Star Wars means the dialogue is exceptionally flexible and inventive, a reflection of how imaginative he was as a screenwriter. The acting as well is also exceptional as to be expected from Żuławski's films, able to convey just in exaggerated body language what their emotions are before they even speak.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
Cosmos feels like entering an alien environment, relatively close to reality within a guesthouse full of arguments, constantly delicious culinary dishes and nature constantly appearing within the middle class environment, a slug literally letting nature be known sitting on the butter for the croissant. When the extreme emotions of the occupants of the house are shown, and reach their peak however, things drastically change, having to keep pace with Cosmos and see the literal "cosmos" of title in how dynamic and unconventional human behaviour is at its fullest.
As a result of this, the experience of Cosmos is an ever increasing series of stranger events taking place as the realisation Lena is as interested in Witold as the other way round becomes know to the later, the madness of a priest suddenly unzipping his flies and releasing bees into the air deliberately maniac energy is actually more pronounced in a film like this than in one like Possession as, while the later is more extreme in content and tone, the more abstract of the pair, the stereotype of what this type of slice of life drama with possible mystery content is belies the surprise of what actually takes place, having greater impact.
Sadly Żuławski is no longer with us, but with his final film Cosmos he was still as uncompromising as his reputation suggests, delightfully wild with intelligence and actively encouraging me to rewatch it over and over again to catch more details and moments of gleeful humour