Polish auteur Andrzej Żuławski may be best known worldwide for his 1981 body horror whatsit “Possession,” in which Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani play a couple whose relationship crumbles in increasingly bizarre, expressionistic terms. For the outrageous dark satire “Cosmos,” his first feature in 15 years, Żuławski savages a much broader target — the inherent chaos and desperation of human consciousness. It’s often hilarious, confounding and downright strange; if not the director’s most polished work, it nevertheless delivers a demented philosophical puzzle that’s fun to scrutinize in all of its baffling uncertainties.
Żuławski’s French-language production, which adapts the 1965 novel by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, follows a crazy-eyed law school dropout named — for symbolic purposes that immediately endow the material with meta quality from the start — Witold (relative newcomer Jonathan Genet, a lanky man with a piercing gaze). As the story begins, Witold walks away from his gig at a Parisian fashion company to take solace at a peculiar family guest house in the woods, where he hopes to write a brilliantly sophisticated novel. With his giddy pal Fuks (Johan Libéreau) by his side, Witold settles into the oddball home and its residents, where inexplicable behavior meets colorful personalities.
The place is lorded over by the aging and seemingly insane retired banker Leon Wojtys (Jean-François Balmer) — who at one point nibbles salt off his knuckles at the dinner table — and Leon’s wildly paranoid wife (the always satisfying Sabine Azéma). Then again, Witold isn’t too clear-headed himself, and from the outset it’s hard to tell just how much his subjective perspective impacts the movie’s trajectory. In the ominous woods, Witold discovers a bird dangling from a string, one of several creatures that meet that fate in the ensuing madcap narrative. In the meantime, he develops a pair of dangerous obsessions: first with the physical deformity on the lips of the housemaid, before growing dangerously fixated on another mouth — namely, the one belonging to Lena (Victoria Guerra), whose marriage to a bland architect drives Witold mad (although he’s halfway there already).
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These developments grow increasingly fragmented as the movie goes on, with the ensemble bickering over various worldly topics while Witold alternately slaves over his vaguely-defined novel and lurks around the property. Longer dialogue exchanges tend to drag more than the outrageous tangents that form the bulk of the appeal. Visually, Żuławski doesn’t do anything too sophisticated aside from various telling closeups of his zany characters, though the abrupt editing choices of the perplexing finale is a masterwork of disorientation.
Yet the plot of “Cosmos” has a kinship to Luis Buñuel in its ongoing affinity for probing the pithy concerns of bourgeois society, not to mention the limitations of the human mind to comprehend its circumstances. Witold, with his ongoing attempts to speak in high-minded terms while remaining generally clueless, forms something of a recurring punchline himself. The movie offers no moment more comically potent than Witold saying the words “the savage power of a stupid thought” over and over again to himself in a fairly accurate Donald Duck impersonation, as if ridiculing his own shortcomings.
For all the inspired lunacy, however, sometimes “Cosmos” just feels like pure lunacy, and not every actor makes a convincing enough case to buy into the ordeal. At times it’s as though Żuławski were merely skirting along on the merits of the underlying material. For the most part, however, “Cosmos” never strays far from a series of amusingly irreverent encounters, and that much makes it comforting to be back within the confines of Żuławski’s weird fixations.
While it plays loose with specific meanings, “Cosmos” is littered with overt references, from Sartre’s “Modern Times” (which one character confuses with the Chaplin film of the same name) to Steven Spielberg, whose name comes up pretty randomly. Not every signifier has a clear identity, and the hectic events of the final act leave a whole lot of resolutions in an ambiguous place.
But a closer look suggests that “Cosmos” has been designed to portray the creative process as a form of insanity — a fitting statement from a filmmaker whose oeuvre typically challenges commercial expectations. The credits reveal the camera set-ups behind various scenes, while tidbits of plot continue to dribble out, almost as though Żuławski were confessing that his movie suffers from the same mystified state that he seeks to diagnose.
“Cosmos” premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.