By adapting Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos Andrzej Żuławski proved his position as the most courageous and uncompromising Polish film director. This humorous and perverse film serves as a great conclusion to the director’s film career.
Fifteen years after Fidelity, Andrzej Żuławski had returned to shoot his – as it turned out – last film. In the face of the director’s unexpected death Cosmos seems to be his epitaph, an epitaph that is as uncertain as his films were. Cosmos is a story about art as an act of creating and destroying the world, about attaching meaning to various issues and about chaos that sometimes – and only temporarily – makes sense.
The director of The Devil resettles the action of Cosmos from pre-war Zakopane to a Portuguese province. A young writer, Witold (the incredible Jonathan Genet), together with his friend Fuchs (Johan Libereau), rent rooms in a pension run by the exalted Mrs. Wojtysowa (Sabine Azéma) and her husband (the great Jean-Francois Balmer). Witold meets here two women – Catherette (Clementine Pons) and Lena (Victoria Guerra), who will shortly become the object of his obsession. When he finds a sparrow hanged on a wire in the area around the pension, he starts to investigate.
By bringing the viewers into the Portuguese pension’s microcosms, Żuławski starts to play with us. The director invites us to a space where chaos dominates. Here, nothing makes sense, as the characters seem to originate from different orders and different plays. Żuławski’s visual world is full of excess – literary quotes and allusive references to the history of film and philosophy: Sartre, Pasolini, Bresson, Spielberg and even Żuławski himself, but do not form a whole. The only way to organize the chaos is art. Every now and again Witold sits behind his laptop to write a novel in which he describes his experiences. These experiences do not create a strict description of reality but the feverish relations of an artist who seeks sense in the vicissitudes of daily life.
Cosmos is about art as a form of domesticating the world, controlling one’s own demons, and overcoming fears. Witold confronts them all the time. In one of the first scenes of the film he enters a dense wood even though he fears its darkness. Several scenes later, despite the fact that he is afraid of water, he gets into the ocean with a scarf round his neck and an umbrella in hand. Such moments of transgression build the successive chapters of the novel.
‘I would never make a film about myself’ were the first words spoken by Andrzej Żuławski when he was asked by Piotr Kletowski and Piotr Marecki in a long interview conducted in 2008. However, after the artist’s death, Cosmos may be seen as his self-portrait – with the director’s passions, desires and consciousness of restrictions defined by art.
Żuławski always distinguished himself from other Polish filmmakers through his artistic courage that resulted from his consciousness of the reality of the film industry, where eccentrics are at first greatly loved but later set aside. In the aforementioned interview he stated: ‘I sensed that every film I made could be my last, that they would not let me create any more’. The intensity of his films is partially an effect of this belief. His cinema did not try to appeal to viewers by commanding their fears, the opposite in fact: Żuławski took his viewers out of their comfort zones by breaking schemes and describing the world in a way that left it hard to define the boarders of unreality.
Gombrowicz could not imagine a better artist to adapt his book, an artist equally courageous, arrogant and self-conscious. Żuławski talked about Cosmos for an interview with Tadeusz Sobolewski: ‘This fabulously intelligent and incredibly literary text that touches issues of eternal significance does not make an adaptation easy. I had read Cosmos repeatedly and I surrendered to its poisonous charm’.
Żuławski, as one of the greatest scholars of Polish cinema, treated Gombrowicz’s text in an unceremonious way, committing a ‘creative betrayal’ on it. Leaving the strict reading behind, the director remained faithful towards the novel’s spirit and asked the very same questions that we find in the novel. What is the meaning of the signs that are spread around the world around us? Who has left these signs? Where do they lead us? Żuławski barely answers these questions but mocks them by showing that in a chaotic world there is no reason to look for meanings, as there is no meaning in art, love and life.
Cosmos is definitely the best film adaptation of Gombrowicz, who previously hadn't had his works properly adapted, despite the fact that the great Polish filmmakers challenged his novels: Jerzy Skolimowski in Ferdydurke used a surrealistic poetry but lost all the meanings important for the writer, whereas Jan Jakub Kolski in Pornography abandoned the spirit of the novel to create a realistic war story on the original literary threads. Against this background Cosmos contrasts well as an adaptation that skillfully translates Gombrowicz’s ideas into film. The adaptation also serves as a conclusion for the long artistic road of Andrzej Żuławski. Funny and pervasively ambiguous, Cosmos is uncompromising as the director is. One does not have to like Żuławski, one can even hate him, but he should at least be respected for his artistic consequence and acuity.
Cosmos, France 2015, Dir.: Andrzej Żuławski. Script: Andrzej Żuławski. Based on a novel written by Witold Gombrowicz. Cinematography: André Szankowski. Music: Andrzej Korzyński. Cast: Jonathan Genet, Johan Libereau, Sabine Azéma, Jean-François Balmer, Clémentine Pons, Victória Guerra.
Source: Gazeta Wyborcza, Żuławski. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, Piotr Marecki, Piotr Kletowski, Krytyka Polityczna, Warsaw 2008.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by Antoni Wiśniewski, February 2016Culture.pl