While strolling through the woods, a self-questioning law student chances upon a sparrow dangling by a string and, obsessed with its significance, begins an inquiry into the interrelatedness of things. Adapted by Polish nonconformist Andrzej Zulawski from Witold Grombowicz’s at times dauntingly surreal novel, “Cosmos” teases with the possibility that its many droll, enigmatic details — which range from slugs on the breakfast tray to a pair of characters played by the same actress, one with a grotesquely disfigured harelip, the other without — conceal some deeper meaning. Knowing what to expect, Zulawski fans have been waiting 15 years (the span since “Fidelity”) for just this chance to be left dangling, whereas mainstream auds would sooner stick to more conventional entertainments.
Of all artistic forms, cinema is the most like dreaming, and yet over the years, moviegoers have relinquished the virtually boundless potential of that medium in favor of rote realism: On the blank slate that is the bigscreen, whether they realize it or not, most audiences expect cause to precede effect and for logic to govern what they see. In considering both the macro (the cosmos) and the micro (a film like “Cosmos”), they seek intelligent design, but rarely find more than irrational chaos — particularly in the work of a cult director like Zulawski (known for such erotically charged psycho-sexual provocations as “Possession” and “La femme publique”).
Grombowicz saw humor in this search, naming his leading man (failing at both the bar exam and all attempts to write a novel) Witold after himself and putting the character through all manner of agony — emotional, intellectual, ontological — during his stay at a French guest house run by Alain Resnais’s actress widow, Sabine Azema, whose hair is an electric red powder puff. Meanwhile, Zulawski seems to relate most to the caretaker’s eccentric second husband, Leon, who knows more than he lets on and babbles in a strange Latinate language all his own (“blah-blah-tum,” he says, coining a word, “the bleurgh,” that overtakes his speech).
To play Witold, Zulawski casts tall, vampire-looking Jonathan Genet, contrasting the actor’s rigid, almost androgynous attitude with that of his companion, a street tough turned fashion maven named Fuchs (Johan Libereau): short, agitated and defiantly anti-intellectual. The two young men serve for their authors as other comedic duos have onstage — take the Godot-attendant Vladimir and Estragon or Tom Stoppard’s versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — a source of comedic wordplay and playfully abstract contrasts.
While Witold spends his hours lost in thought, Fuchs goes out each night in search of rough trade — really rough, or so goes a running background joke, as Fuchs comes back each morning with black eyes and bruises that are never addressed or explained. Witold, on the other hand, finds himself obsessed with the two younger women sharing the guest house. One is the proprietor’s newly married — and deeply melancholic — daughter, Lena (Victoria Guerra), whom he covets at the dining room table, caressing the cutlery as if it were her hand. The other is a facially disfigured maid (Clementine Pons, the actress with the double role) whose imperfection intrigues them.
While not an especially revealing actor in terms of what his performance says about his character’s inner turmoil, Genet falls squarely in that European tradition of thesps whose look does most of the work: His gaunt face and sunken blue eyes convey both the hunger of wanting to Figure It All Out and the horror of realizing there is No Answer. Jean-Paul Sartre might have clued him in to that futility, and sure enough, “Nausea” is one of maybe a dozen works overtly cited by the characters, only a fraction of them cinematic, including Pasolini’s “Theorema” and amusingly enough, Zulawski’s own “That Most Important Thing: Love.”
Paradoxically, “Cosmos” provides a key to its own interpretation, even as it defies anyone to make sense of the whole. Audiences would do well to treat it as they might a David Lynch or Jacques Rivette film (say, “Inland Empire” or “Celine and Julie Go Boating”), by trying to appreciate it on a scene-for-scene level, rather than falling prey to the misleading fact it’s presented like one of those Agatha Christie or “Murder She Wrote” mysteries where all will be sensibly explained by the last frame. (It’s no coincidence that Zulawski features behind-the-scenes footage over the end credits, embracing the artifice and openly drawing our attention to the fact the entire experience has been little more than a charade.)
To the extent that anything drives the action, it is Witold’s determination to solve the mystery of the sparrow he found suspended from a cable in the woods: Birds do not hang themselves, after all, and this particular avian casualty seems to have done so more than once. Later, it is joined by a hanging block of wood and (animal lovers beware) the family’s beloved housecat. Could these be omens that one of the human characters might be next? Or, more to the point, can anything reasonably be interpreted as an omen at all? Witold and Fuchs are determined to believe as much, reading significance into every detail, from the position of an ax handle to the shape of a water stain in the corner of the room (granted, the latter looks undeniably vaginal).
That way lies insanity, and the film grows increasingly difficult to interpret as their investigation progresses, eventually taking them to a seaside cottage where things get really weird. Though individual details may defy explanation (a new character dresses exactly like Belgian comicbook hero Tintin, a hitchhiking priest unzips his pants to unleash a cloud of bees), Zulawski maintains such expert control of the film’s look and tone that there can be no question that each choice has been deliberate, whatever the significance.
Such a talky, interiors-centric screenplay might have easily lapsed into stuffy theatricality, if not outright absurdity (“When an icicle mounts a bicycle, it becomes a tricycle,” Leon nonsensically spouts at one point). But d.p. Andre Szankowski’s camera seldom sits still, turning thickets of backyard trees into a menacing screen as it glides past, while Andrzej Korzynski’s romantic score floods in from time to time, only to cease abruptly at the director’s whim. “Cosmos” could hardly be described as boring — frustrating, yes, but boring, never — with enough sexual tension percolating beneath the surface to spark a second Big Bang.