How does one translate into film the books by Witold Gombrowicz, who ranks among the greatest modernists of the 20th century? Few have actually dared. Whereas Peter Lilienthal’s adaptation for television of Pornografia (Die Sonne angreifen, 1971) has been all but consigned to oblivion, the famed Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski went on a 17-year hiatus following his failed adaptation of Ferdydurke (30 Door Key, 1991). However, the opposite holds true for Andrzej Żuławski, who came out of a 15-year pause to adapt for the screen Gombrowicz’s fourth novel Cosmos (1965), also his last and most complex. Unfortunately, it became a farewell work for Żuławski as well.
What kind of cosmos is it? First and foremost, it’s the bizarre microcosm of a boarding house where the young writer Witold (Jonathan Genet) arrives with his friend Fuchs (Johan Libéreau) in tow to finish his novel The Haunted. A sparrow found hanging by a string close to the house soon makes them wary of the owners—the eccentric Madame Woytis (Sabine Azéma) and her eldritch husband, Mr. Leon (Jean-François Balmer). Obsessed with a maid with a deformed lip (Clémentine Pons), Witold finds himself also smitten with the Woytis daughter Lena, lovely and recently married (Victória Guerra).
This brief summary pretty much exhausts the plot, because the narrative’s true subject is the characters’ assiduous interpretive machine set in motion to explain the enigmatic world around them. Leave it to Gombrowicz to produce the most accurate précis of his own masterpiece: "I gladly call this work a novel about a reality that is creating itself. And because a detective novel is precisely this—an attempt at organizing chaos—Cosmos has a little of the form of a detective romance." Gombrowicz’s prose fits Żuławski’s style like a glove, accelerating the pace and thrusting each character into a delirium and gladly handing them verbal swords for witty repartee. The foundational inscrutability of the world—its refusal to submit to rational inquiry—makes one restless and eventually, induces madness. Who hanged the sparrow? Why was the cat killed? Maybe it is, after all, this deep-seated anxiety that renders humans human. It is impossible to forget one of the most beautiful shots of Cosmos: the close-up of Sabine Azéma’s face almost at the end. Cinema rarely grants us so fragile images.
Shot in Portugal, Cosmos is a one of a kind movie, which resists any labels to be slapped onto its singularity. Is it a philosophical burlesque? A surrealist comedy? A metaphysical detective tale? It’s no mere coincidence that Cosmos bifurcates in its final act, offering at least two endings to choose from. The world premiere of the film took place at Locarno International Film Festival where Andrzej Żuławski won the Leopard for Best Direction and announced that he has written a new screenplay. There, at the festival, I had a privilege to talk with him about Cosmos.
Thanks to Paulo Branco for invaluable help in organizing the interview
NOTEBOOK: Lena and Witold recite a poem by Fernando Pessoa, "Magnificat." In English it comes from a collection entitled A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe, which is quotation from another poem by Pessoa. It is, actually, a perfect description of Cosmos.
ANDRZEJ ŻUŁAWSKI: That's why it's in the film.
NOTEBOOK: Like Pessoa, Witold Gombrowicz was also fond of pseudonyms.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Gombrowicz? Never.
NOTEBOOK: Really? When I was preparing for the interview I read that he had used pen names for his journalistic pieces. For instance, Jorge Alejandro and Andrzej Frycz.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Oh yes. But not in his "serious" work. It's different with Pessoa. Some of his best poetical work is signed with two different names.
NOTEBOOK: Your film often mentions Gombrowicz's The Haunted, which, as far as I know, is not one of his "serious" works.
ŻUŁAWSKI: No, he wrote it just for the money, right before the war. The last installment, I think, wasn't even printed because the war started. It's a silly book.
NOTEBOOK: And yet you reference it because...?
ŻUŁAWSKI: The guy in my movie, Witold, also wrote a book, and it's not a good book. And it is called The Haunted. The anecdote he tells his friend when they go to the beach is from that book. It's not a "real" book, I think.
NOTEBOOK: The actor in your film, Jonathan Genet, plays a person named Witold, who plays in a way...Witold Gombrowicz. They share a lot of biographical details: he's also a law student, oppressed by his father...
ŻUŁAWSKI: ...and he also wrote a bad book! It's a box in a box in a box. The only one thing he doesn't share with Gombrowicz is his physique. He looks very different. But it's a film, right? And a film needs faces and bodies; it's very physical. I found Jonathan Genet in a provincial theater, not even in Paris. He's striking, physically. He can be extremely ugly—but also quite handsome. Very intelligent, too, and...how should I say it? Very brave as an actor. He can do whatever. If you meet him at night you'll think he's crazy. Really mad. [Laughs] It's a very good combination for me.
NOTEBOOK: What the poem he recites at the beginning?
ŻUŁAWSKI: It's Dante! It’s the beginning [of The Divine Comedy]: "In the midway of this our mortal life/, I found me in a gloomy wood..." It’s the first line!
NOTEBOOK: I'm really ashamed!
ŻUŁAWSKI: You should be. [Laughs]
NOTEBOOK: You've mentioned the physical aspect of your film. What struck me the most was your translation of Gombrowicz's prose and its intonation—convulsive, spasmodic—into an acting style that retains these qualities.
ŻUŁAWSKI: I don't agree with you. I don't think Gombrowicz is spasmodic: he's quick, he's rapid, he’s short and extremely rhythmic and... Do you know the word "caustic"? His writing is never hysterical. It's caustic. It's galloping but dry. I don't think the actors are spasmodic at all. They are in their own delirium, but for them this delirium always has a profound logic. It's not a bunch of mad men in an asylum. They are petit bourgeois. Witold wants to write a novel until he falls in love with this girl, who never has anything intelligent to say. His relationship with his young friend is really close, almost homosexual. So, it's a complicated little cosmos.
NOTEBOOK: The characters of Gombrowicz's book almost invent a language of their own. When you worked on the script, were you translating from Polish to French, or using the existing French translation, which, as far as I know, Gombrowicz himself approved of?
ŻUŁAWSKI: He never saw it, because he died. He finished the book and died. [Editor's Note: In fact, the French translation was published by Denoël in 1966, Gombrowicz died in 1969] The French translation is a decent work, but it wasn't very faithful. So I only consulted [Georges] Sédir's translation, because I didn't find it equal to the Polish text at all. Luckily, I'm Polish so I can read it. More luckily still, words like "bleurgh" in Gombrowicz mean nothing. What is it? Alban Berg, the composer? A cliff maybe? But in French it means the retching sound—bleurgh. Meaning you want to vomit. If you see a bad movie and someone asks you how it was, that's what you say: bleurgh. So, it's a happy coincidence.
NOTEBOOK: And they vomit in the book.
ŻUŁAWSKI: They vomit in the film as well. They make "bleurgh."
NOTEBOOK: There is a line in the movie about the irrational organization of the world...
ŻUŁAWSKI: Yes, and in the book it is rational organization. You’ve noticed that? A slight difference in our thinking...
NOTEBOOK: It is interesting to think about the characters' professions. A law student, of course, organizes the universe around him rationally, while a writer's organization is irrational. Lena is a language teacher, who also strives to order the surrounding chaos somehow, but she dreams of becoming an actress...
ŻUŁAWSKI: ...which means going back to a disorganized world. Go back to the chaos which, in my opinion, is the essence of acting. Very good! I agree with you. Witold even says so, though quickly: "I hate law." He opens the book and falls asleep. It was unfaithful to Gombrowicz. The character was saying more simple: “rational organization.” And then the old guy says, "Do you think there is any?" It’s a level higher to say “irrational.” But do you think there is one? There is none. Rational or irrational, none.
NOTEBOOK: I was also wondering about the cat scene. Sartre is referenced a few times in the film...
NOTEBOOK: ...so it made me think of Camus' The Stranger, whose protagonist doesn't just kill the man but shoots the dead body four more times. Much like Witold who can't explain why he hanged the cat, Camus' character doesn't know why he does that. It's a huge mystery—the four more shots, I mean, not the murder itself. The reason for that is clear: it was hot outside.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Yes, it was a very hot day. I was 18 or 19 when I read Camus, but as far as I remember, the hero was uneducated. He's not an intellectual. He is basic and it was hot—so he killed. For me, The Stranger is the best science fiction ever made. The second best is Alien, which tells the same story. You can't comprehend this creature, you can’t approach. Even if it could talk, even when Camus' hero starts talking, he says nothing. The alien, the concept of alien, is the essence of science fiction. Gombrowicz's characters—in a way—were often aliens. The hero of Cosmos is alien trying to be among us and to construct something out of a slug, a cat, a bird, a stupid girl. But... I almost think the same: therefore I can make a film.
The worst thing that could happen to a filmmaker is having a cause, a theme—a political or social one. Like a taxi driver... I don't mean the American movie, which is really good; De Niro in Taxi Driver is also an alien, it's wonderful. But it is so often the case with East European cinema—like, let's make a film about the war, we are humanists, after all! I'm not. I don't think human beings deserve anything better than what they have. It's terrible, terrible, terrible... Have you seen this extraordinary film by Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter? It's wonderful because it's about nothing. It's a cosmos. Do you remember a frog looking at a girl chanting? The horse, hate, love... Wonderful! It never worked: nobody has seen it, and Charles Laughton died of... despondency.
NOTEBOOK: Have you seen any other Gombrowicz film adaptations?
ŻUŁAWSKI: No. Should I? Oh well, it's too late anyway.
NOTEBOOK: Witold says Gombrowicz never knew how to end things. Starting with the forest scene, you completely abandon the novel until you put in the last line from the book ["Today we had chicken fricassee with béchamel sauce for dinner"]. In his diaries, Gombrowicz writes a lot about the Form, capital "F." The ending is also the question of form. You gave your film not one but two endings.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Three. If you remember the book, there is no end there. The French call it finir en queue de poisson. Fish escapes. They come back to the pension, Lena is sick, she goes to the hospital, and he goes back to the family he hates—and they have chicken. That's all. I don't want to tell more, Gombrowicz says. My film also escapes conclusion. I was laughing at the press conference. There was the young lady there: very French, very intellectual, very keen. Very Parisian and very dry. She used a lot of intellectual words I pretended not to understand. But her real question, ultimately, was, "Are Lena and Witold going to be together or not?" I told her, "Look, you're a perfect contradiction to yourself. You want my film to be an Argentinean telenovela." I don't know, I said. I know, if they do end up together, they will be very unhappy, so pick your choice.
NOTEBOOK: Witold tells he wants to make a movie. Then we see a very cinematic scene in the forest. Leon is singing like in a musical. The soffits appear.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Like in Hollywood.
NOTEBOOK: Yes! And then we see the end credits with “making of” scene. It’s like another tip from you.
ŻUŁAWSKI: I had an ending that frightened everybody, in which this thing became the film. The shots you see now during the end credits were in the film itself. The guy was un-hanged by the girl, Mr. Leon came to talk to the supposedly dead guy, there was a little dialogue, and then it started to rain—that was it. A sober ending. Some people didn't like it, that's why I made this double ending, or rather, triple ending. The first one is him with her; the second, him coming back to his parents without her. This is two endings, right? The third one is the one from the credits, when we see the "making of" footage. It's a film in a film in a film. So, three endings. Maybe four, if we count the last sentence.
NOTEBOOK: The editing of Cosmos is very special. When it starts raining as Witold and Fuchs go to the beach, there's a very sudden jump cut, which kind of anticipates the multiple endings. The music by your frequent collaborator Andrzej Korzynski is beautiful, but it's cut up so brutally too.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Nothing should be predominant. The film is predominant. To the point you know... I love Jean-Francois Balmer who plays Leon. He did something fantastic: he did all his singing in the mountains in one three-minute-long shot. It's a gem in itself. The camera moving slowly, him chanting... But I had to cut half out because he became too important. He took over the film, which I couldn't allow. It was with a bleeding heart that I did it, but I had to. That's why I cut out some music: otherwise, the music becomes the most important thing in the scene. And if you like it you'll want to hear it again, and I don't want you to.
NOTEBOOK: There's a recurrent motif—the shots with Witold, Lena, and Leon looking at us, straight into the camera. It's really claustrophobic, because we only see their faces, completely alone in this cosmos. How did you...
ŻUŁAWSKI: —With a camera, a lens, and some actors. [Laughs]
NOTEBOOK: At the pension there is a TV with news, it’s a war being shown. How did you select this footage?
ŻUŁAWSKI: It's easy. It's on TV all the time. You pick whatever. You have the war in Syria and other wars brewing here and there. My assistants brought me a lot of footage, so the real problem was, what can we take without paying? It never stops: the violence, the rockets, the kids dying. If the film would be shot according to the book in 1939 Poland... But there was no TV. It would be Hitler preparing his aggression, shaking hands with Stalin, and attacking Poland on both sides.
NOTEBOOK: You've said in the festival newspaper that you wanted to liberate the novel from its claustrophobic prewar context.
ŻUŁAWSKI: That’s it. A film is not a novel. A novel is not written to be a film. It wasn't an act of betrayal. The only difference that matters to me than all these circumstances is that Gombrowicz didn't like people. Even he hated them, except young guys at the port of Buenos Aires. Me, I don't hate people at all. When you read Cosmos, you see how ugly and stupid are Mister and Madam Woytis, how heavy and uninteresting is Lena, how terrible is Witold's roommate, always complaining about something. I can't do that. Physically, I can't go see a movie that won't give me some pleasure, intellectual or sentimental or funny—or maybe a sense of discovery. Otherwise, what for to see a film? If Cosmos had been filmed according to the novel, it would've been a very depressing and ugly film. Why the hell should I see those terrible people? Sounds like a basically stupid question. It’s not. It’s like life. Why should I spend my life with ugly stupid petit bourgeois people? I won’t. I won’t spend my life in Hollywood either. I don’t like these people, I don’t like their stories. So it leaves you to stay alone for fifteen years. In my forest. We should finish.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Bleurgh! [Laughs]