Dir/scr: Andrzej Zulawski, Portugal/France. 2015. 103 mins


Andrzej Zulawski’s return to filmmaking after a 15 year absence is, quite comfortingly, a very strange kettle of fish. Billed as a “metaphysical noir thriller”, his adaptation of the 1965 novel by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz is fuelled by existential angst and filled with signs and clues that might be completely random or might add up to something significant. At the very end of the film, we are told the lead character was named after Gombrowicz because he never knew how to finish his novels or their meaning. Bewildered mainstream audiences will be similarly in the dark with Cosmos but others should appreciate its rich strain of absurdist comedy, emotional hold and fully committed performances. Zulawski’s name will be enough to command cinephile attention and might attract some support from staunch arthouse distributors. Further festival exposure is guaranteed following its world premiere screening at Locarno.

Even if Cosmos deliberately eschews easy comprehension it remains involving and intriguing enough to keep the viewer on board.

As the film begins, we seem to have been pitched into a Feydeau farce. It is not just the presence of Sabine Azema that also reminds one of an Ayckbourn play (or the cinema of Alain Resnais). Two young men arrive at a family hotel that is more like a madhouse. Aspiring novelist Witold (Jonathan Genet) has failed his law school exams. Fuchs (Johan Libereau) has fled his job at Paris fashion house Ralph and Lang.

Witold is an anguished intellectual, Fuchs has probably never read a book and his friend’s references to Tolstoy, Stendhal and Sartre fly over his head. Madame Woytis (Azema) welcomes them to the hotel where Witold is entranced by the beautiful Lena (Victoria Guerra) and intrigued by excitable maid Catherette (Clementine Pons) who has a deformed mouth.

The two men become part of a family where Madame Woytis stops moving when she becomes over-excited and her blundering, radish-loving husband Leon (Jean-Francois Balmer) talks ceaselessly. There is a barely suppressed hysteria that seems to have permeated the entire edifice.Witold has seen a sparrow hanging in the forest and when he combines this with the maid’s mouth and a sprawling stain on a ceiling he believes there is a pattern of signs pointing in the direction of something inexplicable. It becomes an obsession as he concludes that further hangings are inevitable and Zulawski films an eye-bulging Jonathan Genet in full close-up as he rages and rants with a fury slightly reminiscent of Sam Neill in Zulawski’s notorious Possession (1981).

Cosmos has a playful, theatrical nature and is often funny as Madam Woytis freezes in mid-sentence or Leon unleashes another stream of nonsensical non sequiturs. It is very much a film of patterns and running gags with Fuchs returning from his nocturnal excursions sporting an ever-increasing number of bruises and cuts to his body and a succession of creatures infesting meals that range from fat slugs to swarming ants.

It is also a film filled with nostalgia for bygone giants of the arts; Fuchs’ t-shirts and towels celebrate Jean Gabin and James Dean and he expressed a desire to appear in Pasolini’s Theorem, Witold mentions his love of Louis Jouvet, Max Ophuls and Marina Vlady.

The film is visually appealing with the final third set in a kind of enchanted forest and a house that is overgrown, stagnant and filled with decay. There is an echo of Angelo Badalamenti in the atmospheric musical score of Andrzey Korzynski and, from moment to moment, the actors make you believe wholeheartedly in the enterprise and invest their scenes with true emotion. There is a real sense of poignancy and heartache in random scenes with Azema or Balmer and even if the film deliberately eschews easy comprehension it remains involving and intriguing enough to keep the viewer on board.

Production Company/International sales: Alfama Films alfamafilms@orange.fr

Producer: Paulo Branco

Screenplay: Andrzej Zulawski based on the novel by Witold Gombrowicz

Cinematography: Andre Szankowski

Editor: Julia Gregory

Production design: Paula Szabo

Music: Andrzej Korzynski

Main cast: Sabine Azema, Jean-Francois Balmer, Jonathan Genet, Johan Libereau.