"It will be difficult to continue this story of mine. I don't even know if it is a story. It is difficult to call this a story, this constant....clustering and falling apart...of elements..."
—Witold Gombrowicz's Cosmos
If I weren't already soaked to the bone from the sweltering heat that has accompanied the Locarno Film Festival this year, Andrzej Żuławski's first movie in fifteen years was bound to get me feverish. One of the few true visionary risk-takers of cinema has yet again found a subject fitting for his boundless energy, Witold Gombrowicz's mental madcap 1965 novel Cosmos. For those familiar with Żuławski's films like Possession, On the Silver Globe, and L'amour braque, it may come as a surprise that the assaultive quality of the novel's streaming consciousness–poring over a young man's vacation in a small town boarding house, where he seems to discover conspiracies of small crimes and odd patterns—has been transformed by the director into a restlessness more befitting agitation, writers block, and creative inspiration than the provocative, often violent cinematic aggressions that made his name.
Has the legendary Żuławski softened, is it this brilliant, too perfect source material? Or perhaps the reason is the scale of the production. Admittedly, the novel, like the Strugatsky brothers' somewhat contemporaneous The Dead Mountaineer's Inn, partially gets its kicks as a parody of inn-hotel-chalet bound detective stories and thus restricts its action almost entirely to two small vacation homes—and the film properly follows suit. There's something vaguely, pleasurably tawdry about these limitations for the film, with its digital camera roaming with the characteristic freedom of this never-constrained director, but nevertheless a camera stuck in the prescribed limits of the story. It called to my mind Godard's Détective and how many films of his (and others) have been set in hotels or seaside homes, perhaps the very places the productions are renting to sleep and eat in as well. Thus these films suggest that what is in front of the camera may be a secret documentary of what's behind the camera. A normally expansive director, Żuławski finds a fervid tenacity in the smallness of Cosmos.
The intimacy is very much clear: where the book can fly freely down a wordy train of abstract thought, the characters in the film must say or do these things in a handful of spaces. So Żuławski turns what was a novel of the interior—narrated by the consciousness of a man named after the author—into a projection to the exterior. The hero, a young man of agitated and darting mind, and exquisitely embodied by Jonathan Genet evoking all kinds of 19th century intellectual protagonists of philosophical novels, is in the film but one piece of the "cosmos," that is, the maelstrom of things and the ties that bind the things in our world, whether that means a bizarre crime (a dead bird, tied and hung, opens the story, and a real hanging closes it), an amorous sexual fetish (obsessions with hands and mouths), or words that try to name and pin these things down. This train of thought, more prominent in the book which is digressive and consumed with detail, reads like prime material for a montage-y Alain Resnais film along the lines of Mon oncle d'Amérique. Żuławski, surprisingly, takes a step back and stages it all in fierce, sliding medium shots that slingshot from character to character: hero to foppish fellow student to disfigured maid to babbling father of the house, his manic wife, their lithe daughter, her prim husband.
As in nearly all Żuławski, the film is inundated with logorrhea, a great deal of which sticks and helps clarify the wild gestures, momentary euphoria, and wide-eyed despondency of everyone, while an equal amount seems like so much noise, expulsions of verbal energy in efforts to find some kind of release from anxiety. Confounding, bombarding, and often electric, the source of everyone's own (and their communal) agitation in this house, their affable desperation is the film's principle mystery, and as easy as it is to pare down to a young writer creatively stymied while falling in love on vacation—or some such—this hardly explains the overwhelming weirdness of the emotional highs and lows, the flung gestures, and eccentric behavior of all who inhabit the world of Cosmos. It is clear it is consuming, and that it is passionate; that it has capacities for true perversion and great strength of empathy; that it all seems pretense, an act, and, too, that nevertheless we see the sheer emotional and physical force it fills these characters with. What “it” is, two viewings later, I am still unsure. Except to say Cosmos' unnamable obsessions inspire me to follow the film, where ever it may end up taking me. And it is a fine thing indeed, after so many years, to get to follow Andrzej Żuławski into the cinema again.
"I smiled in the moonlight at the docile thought of the mind's helplessness in the face of overwhelming, confounding reality....No combination was impossible...Any combination is possible... Yes but the threads of connection were fragile....fragile...."
—Witold Gombrowicz's Cosmos
After the digital sharkskin sleekness of Cosmos, finally, fearfully immersing myself in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch was like wearing the same outfit day in and day out, through mud, blood, sweat, piss, and booze for a month straight, then wilting even further under the humid sun of Locarno, letting that filth dry and cake on only to be soaked again by my own secretions. This film feels dirty, makes you feel dirty. Indeed, everyone on screen in Peckinpah's grim, majestic Western, a film that seems to renew its freshness and radical modernism upon each viewing, seems like they've not just been living in their clothes—battle tested, frontier torn, unwashed, unloved—for months, but in fact all the film's characters feel like they've been living in the world of The Wild Bunch for just too-damn-long. When critics praise movies for "world building" usually they're talking about fantasies or sci-fi or other unreal things; but Peckinpah's Western better than almost any other film builds a real, livable cinematic world. You can picture people's lives after the story is over, you can imaginatively step into any home, shop, bar, or ranch and sit down for a tortilla, drink, or siesta, open their drawers, check their kitchens, try their piss-poor, unlabeled bottles of hooch, talk to their mothers or children, fire their ammunition...and so on.
This viewing, on this film print, I was most struck by the sojourn to the home village of the bunch's sole Mexican member, Angel. A key moment in a film chockablock with resolute scoundrels, this downtime among an enclave oppressed and independent (from the government, from Americans, from the railroads) does the bulk of the film's work to sympathize the bunch beyond the natural proclivities we may have for whichever actor in the gang is a personal favorite. (Between William Holden, Jaime Sánchez, Edmond O'Brien, Ernest Borgnine, and brief John Ford favorite Ben Johnson it might be hard to decide. But the gang also features a young Warren Oates in all his spectacular, squinting incredulity, and so my allegiance is instantly cinched. But that's only because Robert Ryan, my very favorite actor, while co-starring in the film, is not in the "bunch.")
This wooded village, shot by Lucien Ballard as a dense, dappled thicket of swampy aqua greens and patchy canopy light, not just in the story but in the texture and sensibility of the images is a respite from the dust and heat and zesty exhaustion suffered throughout the picture. The shroud of colored shadows in this sun-blanched film graces the men's faces like a cool breeze, wraps them like a brother's arm on their shoulders, like a family member's embrace, like the closest thing to a benediction they will ever encounter. It is the most lingering and sweetest scene in the film, until, finally, during the film's massacring climax, as Pike Bishop, Holden's bunch-leader, is shot again and again and again, Borgnine calls out “PIKE!” with a love many times more concussive than any bullet fired or explosion burst.