in 68th Film Festival Locarno

by Mateusz Werner

After fifteen years of silence, 75-year-old Andrzej Zulawski resurfaced in Locarno’s main competition with a brand new film: Cosmos, an adaptation of the 1965 novel by Witold Gombrowicz, probably the most important Polish writer of the 20th century. Cosmos received a lot of attention from film journalists, especially the French-speaking audience. There was an atmosphere of excitement and expectation prior to screenings, and enthusiastic comments during the press conference afterwards, culminating in a prize for best director. This success proves that – as the director puts it himself – Zulawski is not dead yet.      

Cosmos is considered to be the most mature and intellectually challenging of Gombrowicz’s novels. It offers a radical epistemological experiment set in the laboratory of a conventional “petite bourgeoisie” narrative. Let’s imagine, proposes Gombrowicz, that there is no such thing as an “objective reality” which waits for the revelation of truth. Let’s imagine – as a next step – that the process of understanding the world must inevitably be identical with the creation of one’s own intellectual reality which could have, though not necessarily, explanatory value for others. From this experimental perspective, it is enough that the interpretation of the world’s phenomena suits the needs of its author – a cognitive spectator. This is what Gombrowicz meant by the title of his novel: a network of patterns with a secret underlying rationality.        

The novel’s plot shows the radical consequences of this experiment, with fictitious figures used as tools and laboratory catalysts. Witold, the protagonist, is obsessed with collecting the weirdest patterns which allegedly emerge among words, details of human faces, and random objects. He finds unexpected links and traces which connect these phenomena and does his best to provide a convincing interpretation. Sounds like Sherlock Holmes? Right, there we go: this novel is in fact a philosophical enquiry wrapped in the style of an old-fashioned crime thriller.         

To what degree was Zulawski interested in reconstructing this philosophical enquiry on film? Not much, if at all. His film is much more of a crazy farce, a grotesque parody of a seriously manufactured treatise hidden behind a freewheeling plot and funny dialogue. Zulawski uses the text’s colorful, eccentric surface as a tool for entertainment; he uses philosophy as a signifier of intriguing weirdness, rather than a serious intellectual proposition.              

On these grounds, Zulawski’s ‘Cosmos’ works very well as intelligent entertainment. Gombrowicz’s dialogue has been translated into modern French without losing its witty poetry, and the very Polish, pre-war landscape of obscure individuals and their psychic interiors has been perfectly re-written into contemporary French circumstances. A remarkable performance by Jean-Francois Balmer gives bright life to the major character of Uncle Leon.            

Winning the prize for best director should help producer Paolo Branco to find good arthouse distributors for Cosmos. The film is worth seeing even though it strays so far from its literary source.              

Edited by Lesley Chow