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In a gloomy wood astray

09 September 2016

Stephen Brown sees the last film made by Andrzej Zulawski

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THE truth is rarely pure and never simple (The Importance of Being Earnest). Wilde’s comment is pertinent to the film Cosmos (Cert. 15), which offers viewers a dense exploration of the human condition. And, while it has outrageously funny moments, it’s never going to win an Oscar.

We should have known it would be tough going from the start. A young law student, Witold (Jonathan Genet), quotes Dante. “In the midway of this mortal life I found me in a gloomy wood astray.” From then on, life gets curiouser and curiouser. Witold encounters a hanged sparrow. He and his pal Fuchs (Johan Libéreau) meet for rest and recuperation in a family-run hotel. The location is Portugal, the language French, but not necessarily as we know it. The English subtitles valiantly attempt to imitate the neologisms. Non-sequiturs abound.

This is the final film of the Polish director Andrzej Zulawski (1940-2016). Conversations held round the dinner table reflect human beings’ difficulties in understanding one another and themselves. The desire for a deus ex machina to explain everything is strong. Witold seizes on disconnected events —- from the sparrow to a water mark on the ceiling — to posit that these are indications of a divine plan in a chaotic world. The lawyer in him, if not his own frenetic personality, insists on an order to the universe. He enlists Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea to support his thesis that relationships exist among seemingly disparate experiences.

The rest of this review could be taken up with the eccentricities of the hosts and their guests. Their behavioural tics (frenzied wood- chopping, fights over a bowl of peas, semantic arguments) could occupy a whole psychology conference for weeks. The cast resort to going on holiday together. You might think that meeting a priest (António Simao) is going to provide a route out of life’s gloomy wood, but that, too, fails. Catherette (Clémentine Pons), the maid with a disfigured lip, sprouts a double of herself, Ginette, except for the deformity. Then there’s the kiss that may also be strangulation. The film, based on Witold Gombowicz’s book, is nearer to divine absurdity than comedy.

Together with Sartre, the thoughts of Stendhal, Tolstoy, and Strindberg are entertained (and often mispronounced), as well as the filmmakers Chaplin, Bergman, and Spielberg. Only Samuel Beckett’s name is absent from this gallery of thinkers; and yet, in some ways, Cosmos is the story of his two tramps waiting for Godot. The characters see only through a glass darkly, misunderstanding much of what is offered to them. Any meanings they construct about their existence will always be tentative.

Thus we, in turn, are being asked to make sense of our own experiences; and we are left with a choice. Does the mind discern a divine pattern that subsumes individual beings into overarching Being? Or is life chaotic and random but for any order we impose upon it? It all boils down to what we believe. Better choose one’s creed carefully; for how we tell our own particular stories will be informed by it. Without a sustainable faith, we’ll get as lost as these characters.


Released in cinemas last month, this film will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Arrow Films on 10 October

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