A Tingling In The Spine

Paul Duane on the late Andrzej Żuławski’s final film, Cosmos, which comes to cinemas next week.


It’s difficult to review Andrzej Żuławski’s final film after only one viewing, so dense with allusion is it, and so utterly, beguilingly odd, with a story whose themes are elusive and whose plot is almost impossible to encapsulate. It’s a beautifully disorienting chunk of surrealism from the minds of two of the twentieth century’s greatest provocateurs; a film that puts chaos at its heart.

Witold Gombrowicz, the novelist from whose work the film is adapted, was born into privilege in Poland in 1904, and – after a wild early life of artistic rebellion and illicit bisexual encounters – whimsically accepted a free ocean voyage to Argentina in 1939. Disembarking, he found that his country no longer existed, and that he was an exile, in which  condition he remained until the end of his life. He began to write, and though his works were widely banned, during the 1960s they were circulated as samizdat among the young intellectuals of Communist Poland, among them Andrzej Żuławski.

Żuławski had grown up in France, his father a diplomat, and submitting to the ideological rigours of Communism was not ever part of his plan. He seems to have found a kindred spirit in Gombrowicz. “He was like air, like light, in those terribly sad, grey, and lying times. Whatever he did looked like a savage provocation in front of the Communist concrete and total boredom and total incapacity to do anything right. My entire generation was a Gombrowicz generation,” Żuławski told Nick Pinkerton in one of his final interviews.

Żuławski’s film career was marked by instances of astonishing provocation as well as violence, both intellectual and physical. His debut film, The Third Part Of The Night, set during the Nazi occupation of Poland, begins with the violent death of a Bible-quoting young woman, killed with a rifle butt to the head by a German soldier on horseback. The film is closely based on Żuławski’s father’s wartime experiences in the Resistance, but far from depicting the struggle as heroic, this story zeroes in on Żuławski Sr’s time as an unwilling participant in a German medical program where his blood was used to feed lice so as to develop a typhus vaccine. Żuławski uses his father’s story to dig into feelings of shame and weakness in a population forced to submit to invasion and subjugation. Throughout his career he always seemed most keen to go where nobody else would even think of stepping.

After his nihilistic Dostoevsky adaptation, The Devil, allegorised the brutal crackdown on Poland’s student protests, Żuławski found his work banned in his native country and moved to France, where his work found a slightly less violent register. He became known as an auteur whose relationship films were made of stronger stuff than the usual bourgeois art cinema (once unforgettably characterised by a film tutor of mine as “je mange, je pense” films). International success led to an invitation to return to Poland and an offer of carte blanche to make an epic.

Taking the authorities at their word, he created On The Silver Globe, an utterly astonishing science fiction film based on a trilogy written by his great-uncle Jerzy. The production was halted after Żuławski fell out of favour with the authorities once more, and it’s only by fluke that the film survived at all. He cobbled it together using voice-over and shots of contemporary Poland to indicate scenes left unfilmed, and even in its half-finished state it is one of the most extraordinary works of the visual imagination to come out of post-war Europe.

As he recovered from the trauma of losing his film, and also of a catastrophic breakdown in his marriage, Żuławski poured everything he had into a sort of marital horror film, Possession, which is still his best-known work (not least because it’s in English and stars Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani). Words can’t quite do justice to this film: it needs to be experienced. I’ve watched it multiple times, in cinemas and on blu-ray, and even visited some of the Berlin locations, and it never loses its visceral power. It may be the truest portrayal of a marriage breakdown ever put on film.

Żuławski’s career spanned every possible sort of provocation – political, aesthetic, sexual – until, after 2000’s La Fidelité, his final collaboration with his wife Sophie Marceau, he withdrew from cinema entirely and became a novelist and a director of opera. For fifteen years, he said, he was content to live and to write, until the opportunity came about to film Cosmos, Gombrowicz’s ludic and mysterious final novel.

A season of his works, including – finally – a restored version of his crippled masterpiece On The Silver Globe, was readied in New York to coincide with the 2016 premiere of Cosmos. Then, in February, just days before this retrospective, Żuławski died suddenly at the age of 75, leaving us a puzzling and astonishing final statement.

Cosmos does not feel like a film made by an older man on the verge of death. It’s no summation of themes, or elegaic working-out of his legacy. It is filled with a dark, chaotic, nihilistic energy that captures the confusion and self-destruction of youth, with its solipsism, its passionate involvement in things that seem otherwise utterly pointless, its mad commitment to whim.

The main character, Witold, is played by Jonathan Genet as a Byronic romantic in love with the idea that the world is full of mysterious codes and secrets. The chance discovery of a bird’s dead body, left hanging by the neck by a piece of string in a back road, sets him off on a voyage of misunderstanding, crossed purposes and obscure references, centred around the bourgeois household with whom he and his friend Fuchs are lodging.

Among the elements of Witold’s cosmos are an obsession with a servant-girl’s deformed mouth, a conviction that the recently-wed daughter of the house is secretly in love with him, and a series of obscure physical clues (a ceiling crack that looks like an arrow, a patch of mould in the corner that distinctly resembles a woman’s pudenda).

Meanwhile he seems not to notice that his friend Fuchs is out every night seemingly getting beaten up by rough trade, while the patriarch of the household speaks in a peculiar self-invented language that’s half cod-Latin, half baby talk, and the matriarch suffers from occasional moments where, when stressed, she freezes in place like a statue.

The household’s oddball Bunuelian regularity is soon ripped asunder when the daughter’s cat is found dead, hung like the sparrow. The family decamps to the countryside to recover, only to find themselves suffering a series of paroxysmal events which will deconstruct every relationship beyond repair. By the film’s end, only an audacious structural shift which interweaves two completely different denouements can unite this cracked narrative.

Cosmos is not easy to assimilate, and deliberately so – opening with the main character quoting Dante’s lines from the prologue to the Inferno, “I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path,” the film’s hyper-referential dialogue scene drags in Tolstoy, Sartre and Chaplin. It even makes a joke out of the title of one of Żuławski’s most successful films, and has one character mistake a mention of Robert Bresson for Luc Besson. It will take another viewing or more than one to get past the antic, playful surface of this film to its real truth.

From what I’ve read about it, Gombrowicz’s concern in his novel seems to have been an examination of how people compulsively make meanings from whatever meaningless scraps life throws their way – how unable we are to understand or accept the essential chaos of life itself.

Żuławski’s film glories in this chaos, and frustrates those looking for a unified answer, or even a unified approach. At a time when everyday life is confounding enough for most of us, and fresh surprises – mostly unpleasant ones – await around every corner, this chaotic truth served up in the guise of entertainment may be unpalatable for most.

But those prepared to take the journey will find a film that constantly, wittily wrong-foots them, keeps them wondering, guessing and imagining, and one whose story will only ever be complete inside the mind, and possibly the dreams, of its audience.

Cosmos will be released in UK cinemas from 19 August 2016.

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