At the end of his life and career, Andrzej Zulawski brooked no wasted time. His Cosmos screams into existence at a howling pitch and hurtles forward unhindered. The Polish director’s final film immediately thrusts frustrated young law student Witold—Jonathan Genet, as limber and deranged as the film itself—into a warped pan-European bed and breakfast populated by cranks and character actors. A galaxy of ideas orbits Witold’s extended stay, emanations from a mind wracked by scholarly frustrations and writerly ambitions (he shares both his name and aspired-to profession with Witold Gombrowicz, author of the novel on which Zulawski based his film). The mossed old lodgings and Witold’s attempts at writing form the only real center for the strange events that unfold in Cosmos, but even that center cannot hold for long. Things break into increasingly fragmentary pieces: Buñuelian doubles appear, characters invent their own linguistic code, and the filmmaking process itself eventually takes center stage. Attempting to divine a clearer narrative path is a fool’s errand, and rather beside the point.
“The irrational organization of the world,” as one of the hydra-headed characters puts it, is both the vision and the method. Zulawski’s famed Possession speaks a similar language of hysterical illogic, tracing the dissolution of a marriage via a series of horror signifiers, each sequence emerging not from any recognizable generic roadmap, but from a morass of psychological torment. Cosmos shoots for something similar, though Zulawski sets up some scaffolding to undergird the chaos. Totems recur throughout: hanged animals, sinister garden tools, and Dadaist wordplay. All of which put Cosmos in a particular tradition of the European art film, one defined by willed incoherence, where outlandish gestures replace performance, pronouncements and quotations stand-in for human speech, and the seriousness of the endeavor is inextricable from its narrative impenetrability. In its more somber mode, it might look something like Bergman’s Persona, while the Greek films of Yorgos Lanthimos might represent the droller face of the Janus mask. Zulawski, for his part, seems at least partially comic in his aims. Cosmos’s sense of humor, built on constant movement amid precise framing and an impish contrast of references (Stendhal and Luc Besson and Donald Duck impersonations), is likely the film’s greatest strength, or at least the source of its primary pleasures.
The problem faced by Zulawski’s cinema, however, is one shared by his antecedents and inheritors. It lodges a persistent doubt in the back of the mind: the suspicion that behind the tics and the screaming and the Sartre is an intellectual and emotional vacuum. To return briefly to our earlier examples, Bergman’s spirituality helps to acquit his style if not always excuse it and Lanthimos can at least claim to root his paroxysms in sociology, even if the fraudulence of his sociological insight grows clearer with each film. Zulawski, on the other hand, seems to lack a similar anchoring idée fixe, making him more difficult to pin down. The question about his Cosmos is, naturally, one of intelligent design. Or put simply, does anyone, most of all Zulawski, have any idea what the hell is going on? Is his last testament transmitting an as-yet-unbroken code? Is it a satire of the tradition to which Zulawski’s filmmaking belongs? A public safety announcement regarding the crippling mental stresses of law-school? Like the universe itself, it may just be a lot of hot gas signifying nothing.
Whatever the merits of the case, Cosmos and its maker leave little time to contemplate such questions. Zulawski loathes stillness, as if halting for even a moment to complete a thought might induce an eternity of stasis. And frankly, there’s something admirable and moving in bowing out with a film of such primordial energy, an unintended rage against the dying of the light. The specter of the void slows the director not a bit, even if so willingly flirting with meaninglessness is to gesture towards goofy grandiosity. Cosmos is quite possibly very dumb, but, pace Witold, you shouldn’t dismiss “the savage power of a stupid thought.”
Cosmos plays Sep 10th and 11th at the Northwest Film Forum.