For his last film, Andrzej Zulawski, the late madman of Polish cinema, best known in these parts for his Bavaesque “Possession” (1981), has adapted “Cosmos,” the last novel of beloved Polish absurdist Witold Gombrowicz. The result is nonstop, epistemological slapstick.
It begins with a young man hyperventilating the opening verses of Dante’s “Inferno” (almost everyone in the film speaks on the verge of hysteria) as he stumbles along a wooded path. From then on the dialogue consists of Godardian literary and cinematic namedropping percolating at a Marx brothers-like pace.
The young man is Witold (Jonathan Genet), a namesake of the author of the book the movie is based on. He’s a student seeking some R&R at an inn after flunking his law exams. Already worked up, his paranoia peaks when he spots a sparrow hung by a string on a branch.
In a panicky stream of consciousness, he tells his friend Fuchs (Johan Libéreau), a good-natured hedonist fleeing his job with a fashion designer. But Fuchs is more titillated by the snail-like scar on the lip of the giddy maid Catherette (Clémentine Pons).
The inn is a family-run affair. Catherette is the niece of the patriarch, Leon (Jean-François Balmer), who speaks in circular riddles punctuated by gibberish that is probably more entertaining in the original than in the subtitles. Leon’s narcoleptic wife, Madame Woytis (Sabine Azéma), wears a bright red wig and has mood swings ranging from exhausting gushiness to an unhinged shrieking like that of the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland.” Their daughter, Lena (Victória Guerra), a beautiful enigma who smokes Virginia Slims, is married to Lucien (Andy Gillet), a bland architect. They seem relatively normal, but when the whole family gets into a row at the dinner table it’s like pandemonium in one of the lower circles of hell.
What follows consists mostly of Witold’s mounting, desperate attempts to apply meaning to the dead bird and other cryptic clues that are found along the way — pieces of wood, a teapot, a frog, a snail on his breakfast plate — and images forming in the moldy plaster of the room. They lead to something, he’s sure, and it probably has to do with his growing obsession with Lena.
Does he find an answer? Or, more importantly does he recognize that there is none? Near the end of the movie he says that his mother named him after Gombrowicz because “he never knew how to end his novels, nor their meaning.” That sums up “Cosmos” as well as anything. And that’s a compliment. Maybe.
Directed by Andrzej Żuławski. Written by Żuławski, based on the novel by Witold Gombrowicz. Starring Jonathan Genet, Sabine Azéma, Jean-François Balmer, Clémentine Pons, Andy Gillet. At Brattle Theatre. 97 minutes. Unrated (nudity, meaninglessness, smoking). In French, with subtitles.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.