Andrzej Zulawski’s Cosmos opens with a double dose of Dante, as young, befuddled Witold (Jonathan Genet) rushes headlong into a dark wood, reciting the opening lines from The Inferno. What follows isn’t quite a journey into hell, but a dash past the ordinary limits of human behavior that attempts to break down the logical foundations of existence, making for a madcap, erudite escapade packed with cinematic and literary quotations and references. Set primarily in a rustic country cottage, the film overflows its simple setting with a sustained eruption of actorly and directorial bombast, full of elastic facial acrobatics, furious screaming, and unchecked verbal vomit. The result at times recalls late-period Godard, only operating at double speed and with half as much consideration of its own cumulative meaning, an experiment that ranks somewhere between captivatingly off the wall and utterly exhausting.
An adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel, Cosmos retains the idea of its main character losing his mind through his attempts to account for a single irrational occurrence, which swells to overtake the entire story. In recreating this scenario, Zulawski beats a similar path from controlled exploration to outright chaos, employing a classic farce structure as the characters trade romantic partners and their destines are reshuffled, reverberating with the manic, unsettling eccentricity for which the late Polish director was known.
In many ways, however, the final product is less akin to the concentrated, circumscribed madness of Possession than the disturbing fish-out-of-water dramas of Zulawski’s countryman Jerzy Skolimowski, Deep-End and King, Queen, Knave in particular. This is especially evident in the spectacle of a lost innocent pushed into a wild world beyond his comprehension, in which his narrow and simplistic worldview is destined to be torturously expanded.
As imagined here, young Witold is a former law student now committed to a career as a novelist, and his move from the rigorous study of legal precedent to free-form fiction parallels the film’s passage from order to anarchy. The young man’s creative process generally seems to involve working up a lunatic lather: He stomps across his bedroom or around the cottage’s pastoral environs, then engages in hysterical shouting at his laptop while typing the words tumbling from his mouth. Meanwhile, the action is moved from the Polish woodlands of the novel to an off-season French resort town, an atmosphere of icy waves and foggy gloom providing a chilly tonal counterpoint to the character’s frantic, hot-blooded enthusiasm.
After finding a dead sparrow hanging from a tree, Witold begins to question what this puzzling occurrence has to do with the seemingly peaceful bed and breakfast run by Madame Woytis (Sabine Azéma) and her husband, Léon (Jean-François Balmer), with the help of their two adult daughters. While investigating this mystery, Witold becomes obsessed with the married older daughter, Lena (Victória Guerra), and as the hangings continue, multiplying in size and strangeness, there are few leads as to which of these increasingly unhinged weirdoes might be the perpetrator.
This mission is really only a narrative excuse for Witold to steadily go batshit, and Cosmos enthusiastically follows suit, as the supporting characters all transform into increasingly grotesque expressions of his solipsistic headspace, a fitting choice considering the story’s adaptation from a novel by an identically named author. Crushing the cramped house and its confined seaside surroundings into a single interlinked space, Zulawski utilizes it as a performative stage for these frenzied transformations, the plot’s finely drawn social mechanics collapsing into a ragged mess.
This type of structure, in which farce is taken to its extreme endpoint, utilized as a conduit for detailing the disintegration of an initially ordered narrative arrangement, at times draws close to Raúl Ruiz’s perplexing dream worlds, though Zulawski’s shooting style is too stolid, and his approach too unrepentantly unrestrained, to match the Chilean master’s elegant surrealism. The whole thing either gives way to noisy, belabored absurdity or splays out into a beautiful spread of vibrant senselessness, depending on your tolerance for overwrought, tongue-in-cheek inquisitions into the essence of being.
Throughout all this, Cosmos remains blithe and more than a bit silly, while offering scattered commentary on Witold’s myopic fixation with illogical minutiae. The repeated appearance of battle scenes on television sets points to a world whose convulsive self-destruction contrasts grimly with the insignificant personal fugues occurring here, reflecting the transposition of the original novel’s setting from 1939 Poland to the present day.
It’s hard, however, to keep track of subtext as Witold’s insanity consumes the rest of the story. A Tolstoy quote about confusing beauty with greatness seems significant, especially if one is willing to consider the film’s strange formal wrinkles and refusal to properly play out its core mystery as purposeful defects. And imperfection is further embodied by Madame Woytis and Léon’s youngest daughter, Catherette (Clémentine Pons), who acts as the cottage’s maid—clad in full traditional attire. She bears a distinct facial deformity, resembling a garden slug, that she refuses to remedy—an obstinacy that draws in Witold’s friend, Fuchs (Johan Libéreau).
Fuchs is, admittedly, also an unapologetic hedonist with irons in several other fires, his wide-ranging obsessions offering a contrasting belief system to compete with Witold’s monomaniacal focus on Lena, his laser-focused fascination with forbidden beauty pitched against Fuchs’s riotous openness to all forms of experience. Both viewpoints appear to be presented by Zulawski as indicators of a neurotic culture on the cusp of disappearing up its own ass, and while the filmmaker goes to colorful lengths in portraying this scenario, Cosmos eventually falls victim to the same sort of navel-gazing fecklessness.
Zulawski offers some moments of inspired folly, a few instances of striking tranquility, and more than a few good ideas, but his depiction of humans undone by the inherent illogicality of existence gets caught up in that same sense of futility. The film flounders by not providing serious stakes or fully elucidating actual consequences of this type of behavior. It’s appropriate that an illustration of an irrational world would make for such a monumentally irrational work, but Cosmos never explicates its worldview in any coherent manner, ending up as an arduous example of outré gonzo weirdness.