The news of Andrzej Żuławski’s death comes just as a sidebar retrospective of his work commences at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Film Comment Selects. Żuławski, who prior to his latest film, Cosmos (2015), had kept away from filmmaking for fifteen years, had been undergoing an intensive cancer treatment. He passed away on the night of February 16th.
Born in Lviv, Ukraine, Żuławski, like many of his generation, was impacted by the trauma of the World War II. Both of his parents fought in the underground, and, as Żuławski recalled in his interviews with Polish newspapers, from an early age, he had grown accustomed to being alone: a propensity that he carried with him into adulthood, convinced that the creative process is, deep down, always solitary. Some of the biographical material seeped into his films: In his feature debut, The Third Part of the Night (1971; screening Friday night at the FSLC), the patients feeding leeches on their own flesh recall Żuławski’s father’s work in a medical institute. In the film, Żuławski molds the leech-feeding into a larger parable of life-within-death, a nightmarish story about the agony of love and guilt. After the war, Żuławski cultivated his sense of separateness in France: Unlike the generation formed largely at the National Film School in Łódź, he studied in Paris. In this sense, although his first professional apprenticeships were under Andrzej Wajda, which he acknowledged as an enormous opportunity, Żuławski never shared the reverence for the Polish School. He was more of a temperamental kin to another Polish enfant terrible, Walerian Borowczyk. Along with Borowczyk, Żuławski will be remembered in Poland as an outspoken, at times, irascible figure, but more importantly, a visionary of cinema with little patience for censorship, or for middlebrow tastes.
As for censorship, Żuławski bore the brunt of it first-hand. In his tribute, curator Daniel Bird, responsible for the retrospectives of both Borowczyk and Żuławski at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, noted that Żuławski had the dubious honor of being one of the most censored of European filmmakers. His work on the sci-fi film On the Silver Globe (1977) was halted before its completion, while the macabre historical tale The Devil (1972) was shown only in 1988 (both films screen in the retrospective, on Saturday afternoon). Żuławski was not alone, of course, joining the likes of Piotr Szulkin and Grzegorz Królikiewicz, or documentarians Marcel Łoziński and Wojciech Wiszniewski, as some of the artists ruthlessly censored under communism. But Żuławski’s run-ins with cultural censors extended to the democratic era— mos recently, in the field of literature, when in 2010 the Polish courts sought to stop further publication of his fictionalized memoir, Nocnik (Piss pot), alleging that Żuławski had failed to protect the identity of actress Veronica Rosati.
Like Borowczyk, Żuławski, ever courting controversy, showed a keen interest in exploring erotic love on film. A number of his works, from his early cult film Possession (1981) to the later Szamanka (1996), centered on the subject. In interviews, Żuławski commented that he made films about what troubled him, and that women—female characters—were a vehicle through which he hoped to get at the major themes. Among them, the idea that all human beings possess a particle of the divine, expressed directly in Possession, though in frightening terms, where the divine and the devious meet. For Żuławski, the madness presented in Possession was also the madness of love at all costs: the idea that a partner might be so desperate to blindly support his lover he forsakes his sanity, and life.
In a way, Żuławski’s final film, Cosmos, which crowns the retrospective at the Film Society, is a fine companion to Possession. Both films pulsate with sexual aggression, animated as much by the characters’ verbal attacks as by the obsessive imaginations that fuel sexual conquest. And both show the unknowability of the human mind, by insisting on hyperrealism while showering us with surreal exorcist antics. Whereas in Possession, a diabolically distraught wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), pushes her repressed husband, Mark (Sam Neill), to the brink of madness by revealing her infidelity, in Cosmos, the action revolves around the triangle of a young writer, Witold (Jonathan Genet), who arrives at an idyllic villa, where he falls for a married woman, Lena (Victória Guerra). On the surface, not much happens after Witold’s arrival: he is immediately smitten, and spends his time intently watching the object of his affection and her beau, Lucien (Andy Gillet) at dinners, or later, on a picnic. But the staleness of the country life is compensated for by the agitation of the mind, and so Witold is oft consumed with proving the foul play he believes to be at hand. His acquaintance, Fuchs (Johan Libéreau), on the other hand, has a singular aim in mind, trying to copulate with whomever he can.
Like Possession, Cosmos is populated with unforgettable secondary characters (Margit Gluckmeister, played by Margit Carstensen, in Possession; and Madame Woytis, played by Sabine Azéma, in Cosmos, just to name two). And like in Possession, what first appears to be mere sexual spite and schadenfreude soon acquires a much more disturbing, mystical, or fantastical, dimension. In Possession, there are not only scenes of alien sex, and hints at atomic annihilation, but the whole film is permeated by a vision of womanhood as demonic. In Cosmos, this vision is prominent as well, though it mostly boils down to sex being seen as wicked and degrading.
As in his other films, Żuławski establishes immediately that the world we are entering is uncanny and dangerous. In Possession, he achieved this by drawing the viewer into the drab post-socialist landscapes of Berlin before the fall of the Wall; in Cosmos, the picturesque gardens and cramped interiors quickly turn from lush-romantic to sinister. Dead nature abounds—from the hung sparrow to the mysteriously murdered cat. Similarly to Jakub (Leszek Teleszyński), the young nobleman in The Devil, who loses his mind when confronted with evil, Witold channels the outrage of a young soul vis à vis the corruptible world. And while Witold is not mad, his status as an inventor of tales casts him in a dubious light.
The linguistic energy of Cosmos stems from the film being based on the eponymous novel by avant-garde writer Witold Gombrowicz. Gombrowicz was an enfant terrible of the 20th century Polish literature—bold and controversial, he is known as much for his popularizing the idea that humans inherently wear social masks, hiding their true feelings and shameful impulses, striving for authenticity yet hopelessly fake, as he is for renovating his native language with endless neologisms and absurdities. Both of these contributions are highlighted in the film: Witold, Lena, her husband and parents, are constantly shifting between polite, often glib or downright nonsensical conversation and the darkest moments that seem to pierce their souls. The camera rolls and swoons, and its fluid movements emphasize that this is a universe in which no one is ever on sturdy ground, full of relationships constantly shifting and social ties severed. Thus Witold is both full of pride and deprecation, insisting on purity but secretly yearning for filth. Most characters, including Witold and Fuchs, are polymorphously aroused, and the essential part of this cosmos relies on the reconfiguring of sexual possibilities.
Żuławski is not bound by Gombrowicz’s text, however. There is a looseness to the myriad transpositions he makes—from the Polish to the French countryside, from a period piece to endless contemporary cultural inserts (riffs on names of filmmakers, such as Spielberg and Bergman, mention of Star Wars, and so on). There is something very touching about this crumbling world, which straddles an awkward divide between the 20th and the 21st century, even if Witold, with his dark, swept hair, and his sensuous face echoing Gombrowicz’s own features, isn’t always entirely convincing as a contemporary writer, pounding away on his laptop. In this sense, for all the uncanny likeness, Genet’s performance is no match for the inspired theatrics that are so unnerving, and yet impossible to resist, in Adjani and Neill’s performances in Possession. And there is no nauseating chemistry between Genet as Witold and Guerra as Lena, the way there is, to the end, between Anna and Mark.
But perhaps more significantly, in Cosmos, Żuławski turns Gombrowicz’s natural deviousness into a game on his own terms: at first establishing that Witold is writing a book, he then switches this premise to making a film, even going as far as showing us, at the end, some of the actors stepping out of their roles. A film-within-a-film trick is Gombrowiczean through and through: an act of tearing down a mask, both playful and cunning. It is no small feat, considering just how internalized, and often arcane, the original text may seem. In this case, Żuławski proves that there is a case to be made for taking artistic license. Perhaps this conviction also comes from Żuławski’s belief that Gombrowicz himself never bothered with convention.
And if Cosmos is at times difficult to grasp, that is mostly when it surrenders to Gombrowicz’s linguistic prowess. Some of the nonsensical dialogue fails to translate into gripping drama, and Gombrowicz’s ruthless satire at times appears dated. For those who weather the flatter moments, however, there is plenty of spark in Cosmos to delight the eye, and the mind—as intricate and audacious a farewell as any great artist might hope for.