About five percent of the observable universe comprises matter and energy that we can know and measure and be comfortable with. The rest is dark energy – the silent engine behind the universe’s constant expansion – and dark matter, which is invisible but gaugeable by its otherwise baffling effects.
Andrzej Żuławski’s swansong, Cosmos, makes this point without once mentioning it. It joins the ranks of the very greatest films about the universe, how it works, our place in it, and how we might make sense of it. (I think it’s every bit as good as Cet Obscur Objet du Désir, say, and a hell of a lot better than The Tree of Life.) As well as commenting on these things it also happens occasionally to comment on itself. Meta-commentary tends usually to distance the viewer, but here it compels us to watch. Not for Żuławski the Kool-Aid of cool irony: this film is unafraid to be magic. The mechanics of the film itself are unprecedentedly affecting – how can a film be so formally suffused with its own entropy, and yet be so tightly sprung, so disciplined yet so indulgent, so intellectually baffling yet so emotionally direct?
Cosmos, which lasts 106 minutes, is no epic, but is definitely one for the big screen. It’s an hour shorter than Interstellar, but says three times as much about our relationship with the universe. Not since I saw Pierrot le Fou eight months ago have I felt such exhilaration, and it must be partly because I felt like a hostage lapsing into Stockholm syndrome, falling in love with the insane world of my kidnapper, who when among the living was also a conjurer, a philosopher and a genius. You never feel like a hostage when watching a movie on a small screen (unless of course you are literally being held hostage).
Sure, Cosmos has Godard’s fingerprints all over it, but it surpasses most of the French-Swiss pioneer’s work. It’s historically specific (there are at least two references to the financial crash of 2008) but is peculiarly timeless, given that its key theme is entropy and the absurdity of trying to contain it in our minds and in life. The short scene that sums up the film occurs early on: a woman with a deformed lip and an elderly patriarch begin fighting over a bowl of garden peas in the kitchen for no apparent reason, and after a few seconds there is an abrupt cut (one of many abrupt cuts) to all the film’s principals scrambling around on the floor trying to pick up the scattered rolling peas. These two scenes together last less than 15 seconds. Metaphysical Żuławski is, but Béla Tarr he ain’t.
It is impossible to discuss the film meaningfully without reference to Godard, largely because critics of the film are likely to see it as only so much warmed-up JLG. In some places, it more-or-less is. Take this one exchange (translated from the French) between the protagonist, Witold, and his happy-go-lucky friend Fuchs, which takes place on a large rock lashed by waves (natch). Fuchs attempts to remember the name of Madame de Rênal, a character from Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, which they have discussed before:
Fuchs: Madame de…
Witold: That was a sweet film. Bresson.
Fuchs: Luc Bresson?
Witold: Ophüls, Max.
These flashes of wordplay and inversions make the characters thoroughly Godardian: they seem in their minds to inhabit a semi-fictional world of wit and art even within the fictional world of Cosmos, and their world is defined by touchstones – Stendhal, Pasolini, Chaplin, Sartre, James Dean – whose only relevance is that they injected life into all who felt their art. The film has the same effect. Żuławski tips his hat to Buñuel, too: when Witold licks the foot of Lena, the object of his love, it brings to mind the infamous toe-sucking scene in L’Age d’Or, and the quick cuts of Fuchs’s breakfast slowly overrun by ants and a mollusc recall Un Chien Andalou. But Godard provides the film’s idiom. A slow-building, gorgeous score will suddenly be pulled from under our feet just as we were beginning to feel. The last scene goes through a couple of near-repetitions, as if the filmmaker can’t decide on the best one and decides to include all three variations. The backdrop of the end credits is just scattershot scenes from the making of Cosmos, including dollies, props, lighting and actors chatting between scenes.
So we should ask ourselves two questions: what’s the point of all this play? And how is the movie different from its precedents?
Second question first. What differentiates it is the passionate, festering insanity of its protagonist, and here we come to one of the combustible elements that give the film its chemistry: the intense beauty and beautiful intensity of its leads, neither of whom is yet a star. Jonathan Genet plays Witold, named after the writer of the novel on which the film is based. (The film is reflexive here: he’s not named after any old Witold, he’s specifically named after Witold Gombrowicz – the character’s mother was a fan.) He’s an aspiring novelist, and an archetypal True Artist, Tortured Soul and Romantic Lover. He looks like a Brett Helquist illustration, like a young manga man jolted to life and thus to madness. He is a modern-day Hamlet (and anyone who accuses Genet of hamming is missing the point). His madness begins not with the meeting of a spectre but with the murder of a sparrow, hanged from a branch with a string of blue thread. He is in love not with his mother but with Lena (Victória Guerra), the daughter of the matron of the B&B he’s staying in in a vain attempt to cram for the re-sit of a flunked law exam. The film, in its oblique, jagged way, charts the course of this love, and of Witold’s attempt to make sense of his strange world.
Lena is engaged to a respectable architect, Lucien (Andy Gillet), but Witold thinks she might speak the same obscure poetical language as he does, and pursues her with a febrile adulation that is the film’s aching heart. He tries to interpret strange visual signs – the mouldy mark of an arrow on a wall (interestingly, he doesn’t interpret it as some sort of vulva, which is what it really looks like), the imprint of a rake on the ceiling, a block of wood “hanged” with the same kind of thread used to hang the sparrow – and acts according to an irrational yet inexorable logic that culminates in violence, surreality, near-adultery and the suicide of one of the principals.
There’s rarely a good reason to bring up an actor’s beauty in a film review, but the physical magnetism of Genet and Guerra are crucial to the film’s compulsive watchability. (Neither their beauty nor their magnetism can be divined from the trailer or stills.) If they were less talented actors, the film would be less successful; but it is fair to say it would also be less successful if they were less bewitchingly easy on the eye. “Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse the pretty with the good,” breezes Witold, a few minutes into the film. And yet there is a truth in Lena’s beauty that has nothing to do with morality and, for Witold, everything to do with existentialism and being alive. Tolstoy’s credo is upended, and Witold is quickly driven mad. So much of his dialogue could have been written for a late-’60s / early-’70s Jean-Pierre Léaud, and yet he’s a character Léaud could never have played.
This is partly because Genet plays the character as someone who does not understand irony, least of all the ironies of his own situation. This helps give the film a peculiar power: it is a funny movie about sincerity and authenticity. If he’s a stand-in for the real-life writer Gombrowicz as well as being an archetype, he also manages to be a stand-in for audience members – he allows himself to be animated by emotions we would normally shut off before they began to rule us.
The film barely gives us a chance to think; during the few moments of respite, we find ourselves catching our breath rather than collecting our thoughts. Only when a quote from the author Gombrowicz appears on the screen – such a funny non sequitur is it, it’s not a non sequitur at all – can we start taking stock. Different people will take stock differently. I pondered Leon, Lena’s stepfather and co-proprietor of the B&B, and his significance. He plays a trope – the raving loony who’s actually the clearest-eyed of them all – and for a while I couldn’t figure out why I was so moved by a cliché.
In the end I decided it was because of Jean-François Balmer’s performance, which also helped explain why I loved the film so much: its performative qualities, its ability to transfigure baffling signs and disconnections into beautiful sense simply by being alive and uncompromising. Here we can answer the first question I posed: why all the formal messing around? Says Witold of Leon, who is dancing in a twilit forest: “You are just a face. A mask. An object, a thing. Behind it there’s nothing. The void.” But this makes the face, the mask, the performance, the one thing between the viewer and the void, imbuing the ostensibly superficial with colossal significance. In this light, the attempt to make sense of life (and to make a show of it) is itself the meaning of life. This is hardly a groundbreaking idea, but few philosophical ideas in cinema are new. Żuławski’s achievement here is to make it seem truly new. If only more films could convey such philosophical truisms with such verve, finesse and exhilarating abandon.
“Say nothing,” Witold continues. “I know that without her, my life loses its music, its freshness, its passion. Without her, standing there, full of attractions I no longer want to see.” (These attractions having cost him whatever sanity he had at the film’s beginning.)
He then goes full Hamlet. “My life is turning rotten, perverted, flat. Her smile… her mouth… her hands. It was I who became disgusting, not her. I am the maker of disgust. It’s my fault.” A peculiar reversal of the Proustian view of love as possession of the other, this is dispossession of the self. But no matter – in the next scene, he possesses himself and the girl. It’s a scene that occurs two or three consecutive times, varying slightly each time, to let us know that this is just one outcome of many possible ones. We live in a quantum universe, and the film knows it. We only get the happy ending because this is art, where we can seem to exercise control. And how better to show this than making a tightly controlled film about entropy?
I cannot compare this film, Żuławski’s final work before his death a few months later, to his others – I have seen only Possession, with which Cosmos shares a darkness, a madness, an unknowability. Cosmos’s batshit crazy pacing, bravura editing, wisdom and Gallic playfulness do not suggest a 75-year-old Pole dying of cancer. But that’s exactly what Żuławski was.