American auteur David Lynch is often quoted in proclaiming “I get ideas and I want to put them on film because they thrill me… I don’t know why people expect art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense” in response to fans who pedantically examine each and every frame of his films for some empirical meaning. This is not an unusual sentiment; it is one that has been echoed by the likes of Werner Herzog and Michelangelo Antonioni. Of course, this shared consensus is not to imply that their films lack any interpretative meaning. French essayist Roland Barthes, in helping pioneer the reader-response theory of criticism, argued that the meaning of art can only be derived from the reader, if and only if all authorial intent is disregarded. The point is, these filmmakers welcome a formalist approach to their films, inviting a viewer-imposed purpose that is not restricted by any contextual lens.
This philosophy is perhaps best applicable to a filmmaker like Lynch whose worlds are surrealist, disjointed and abstract by nature. It helps that Lynch himself actively resists the notion of a definitive interpretation, verbally and in practice (you could spend all day attempting to decipher the semantics of Inland Empire). And yet, what Lynch does is hardly inventive, he simply continues a long line of tradition that is unfortunately far and few in between today. These days, a filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky will create a Buñuelian nightmare in mother! and then immediately indulge in several press tours, explaining every minute intricacy and squandering all of its mystique. Nevertheless, once in a while, along comes a film like Cosmos that defies definition in and of itself.
After the release of Fidelity in 2000, the infamous Polish provocateur Andrzej Żuławski went on an extended hiatus from filmmaking. He returned, only 15 years later with a film that would polarize and bewilder even the most devoted Żuławski fans — a film that would simultaneously serve as his swansong since he would die shortly following its premiere. Cosmos is an enigma, unlike any of Żuławski’s other features, and represents all of his most self-indulgent qualities coiled up into one. If Żuławski’s films are to be described as frantic, messy, and lost in their own making, but strung together by a tangible narrative, then Cosmos is the former descriptor amped up to eleven and no longer bound by chains.
The film is a recontextualized adaptation of a novel of the same name by Witold Gombrowicz, the very nature of which enables its sporadic and unrestrained essence. Cosmos follows a young man named Witold (Jonathan Genet) who, along with his friend Fuchs (Johan Libéreau), visit a French guest-house as a getaway trip of sorts. Fuchs has recently quit his job whereas Witold is fresh off of failing his law-school examinations and hopes to use the trip as a source of inspiration for his novel. They are greeted by homeowner Madame Woytis (Sabine Azéma) and her family. Witold quickly falls for Lena (Victória Guerra), the young and engaged daughter of the house. However, there is an ominous air of dread — when Witold and Fuchs arrive, they are greeted by a series of omens: a sparrow hanging in a noose, a mysterious piece of wood, and signs in the ceiling and garden.
Gombrowicz’s novel is incredibly malleable as a concept. It centers around the same idea of two friends that go on a trip and are plagued by various bizarre occurrences, which prompt their impressionable minds to overemphasize and embellish their meaning. Żuławski is faithful to the premise but the specific manner in which he depicts this exaggeration takes on a life of its own. One minute Witold will be folding his laundry and then suddenly, as all music cuts, he will stare directly at the viewer delivering a cryptic monologue as he progressively distorts his voice, all while shifting from one deranged facial expression to the next. First-time viewers may as well treat this as it were a David Lynch film — it is an outlandish mixture of garbled symbolism and overt surrealism that can only be described as visual gibberish.
From interspersed scenes of the homeowner screaming maniacally while she repeatedly slams an axe against a tree stump, to Witold dropping all sense of normalcy when in the presence of Lena, or Fuchs flatout disappearing from the film every once in a while, it is easy to forget that Cosmos bears any semblance of a narrative. And yet, it should be noted that there is certainly meaning to be extrapolated from the film. Cosmos is the equivalent of an artist taking a bucket filled with all of their creative aspirations and splashing it over a canvas, unfiltered and unadulterated. There are so many ideas simmering around but Żuławski manages to keep the bulk of it abstract. So much is peppered in, even meta-commentary on the film itself: early in the story, Fuchs speaks about his love for Pasolini’s Teorema, a film with a similar premise about a mysterious man who visits a family guest-house only to sleep with each family member — it is heavily implied that Fuchs does the same.
Even then, most critics at the film’s premiere seemed to accept the fact that the film is deliberately indiscernible — many even dubbed it to be some absurdist horror slapstick hybrid. The experience of watching any Żuławski is comparable to being on an unrelenting roller coaster and Cosmos is no exception. It may not be the most intense film of his oeuvre, but it is among the most unique. To recall the words of David Lynch, when confronting a film like Cosmos, it is perhaps best to engage with it on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level. Whether or not the film is classifiable is irrelevant, as long as it provokes an innate emotional reaction, regardless of if that is fear or even humour. In that department, Cosmos is a truly unique and unparalleled experience and is one of the most peculiar, and overlooked, films of the decade.