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I shall tell of another adventure that is all the more strange...” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

A film by Andrzej Zulawski Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A film by Andrzej Zulawski
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

This sentence was more or less lost in a late 1960’s translation of Kosmos. Sadly it would be that sentence that served not only as my introduction to a novel but to the Polish writer. Memory is a funny thing. While I forgotten most of the novel, it is that first sentence that stayed forever branded into my mind. I decided I needed to revisit  When I learned that Andrzej Zulawski was about to shoot a film adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s Kosmos, I decided to refresh my memory beyond a single sentence. I expected to be confused as I did remember it had been clunky regarding translation. I was excited to discover that the novel that had been warded the 1967 Prix Formentor Award for literature had been re-translated from Polish into English. Yale University Press published Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Gombrowicz since I had last thought of it.

Kosmos Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Kosmos
Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Witold Gombrowicz has always interested me. While he was a fiction writer he is equally known as a diarist. Where does his fiction merge into his reality and experience? How does the English reader know he/she is able to understand his prose’s complexity? German and French readers had better access to his work thanks to more accurate translations. My introduction to his work came with an understanding that he had to firmly defend his most popular work, Ferdydurke, from critics who felt it was satire. Satire had not been Gombrowicz’s purpose. His novels are known for exploring issues of identity and existentialism under the pressures of Nationalism and fast social change. But these explorations were made with a sense absurdity that tied closely to dark humor.

His characters are not fully developed. Their identities are fragmented by the repression, oppression and tyranny imposed by both culture and society. These characters roam about trying to formulate understanding of self/life under the strain and disturbing acts that forever alter the circumstances of being. And while there is a grim level of pessimism that leans against established institutional rule — Gombrowicz disagreed that his work was connected with nihilism, but the darkness is most definitely waiting.

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz's often mistranslated "Kosmos" is resurrected through another lens. Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz’s often mistranslated “Kosmos” is resurrected through another lens.
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Revolutions, wars, cataclysms — what does this foam mean when compared to the fundamental horror of existence? …My literature must remain that which it is. Especially that something which does not fit into politics and does not want to serve it. I cultivate just one politics: my own. I am a separate state.” — Witold Gombrowicz, Diary. Published 1988.

The improved translation helped me in understanding that much of my frustration was something Gombrowicz intended. The characters navigating within his Kosmos are never fully fleshed out. We know that our protagonist, Witold  has trouble waiting to crush him back in Warsaw. We also know that Fuks hates his boss. But we never know what the trouble is or why the boss is hated. In fact we are given limited information about every character. The novel’s extremes and paranoias begin to feed the reader’s imagination. Every action and decision seems to be a reaction to matters we can never fully understand. This vastly improved translation offers more insight into Gombrowicz’s complexity but it also grants permission to not second-guess the awkward phrasing.

The new English translation for Kosmos provides an entirely different read. In the novel two young men seek refuge from the pressures and hardships they experience in Warsaw. They escape the city to what they anticipate will be the nourishing warmth of the country, but they arrive with mutual respective existential crisis and life fatigue. They will soon face a series of random incidents that begin to shift Wiltold further into paranoia, existential crisis as he feels threatened. Gombrowicz brings humor into the equation. Paranoias, fears and angst begin to leap off the charts of rationality. The characters magnify the situations and incidents. They soon feels less coincidental and can be assumed to be intended threats. Witold is unable to consider these incidents as “random.” The unexpected chaos signals pending doom.  His ideas of existence and identity are as fragile as they are extreme.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'the pretty' with 'the good.'" Jonathan Genet Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘the pretty’ with ‘the good.'”
Jonathan Genet
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Isn’t it true? I thought, that one is almost never present, or rather never fully present, and that’s because we have only a halfhearted, chaotic and slipshod, disgraceful and vile relationship with our surroundings.” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Boris Neleop interviewed Zulawski after Cosmos had received its world premiere at Locarno International Film Festival receiving the Best Director honor. Neleop discussed the difficulty of finding accurate translations of Kosmos. The director agreed and pointed out that the film was based from the novel’s original Polish language.

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.

Neleop attempted to engage the artist into a discussion regarding what he perceived to be a shared sort of spasmodic manner in both Gombrowicz’s novel and the great filmmaker’s work. Zulawski disagreed with the connection and seemed intent on avoiding the spasmodic with either work.

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.”

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014 Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014
Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

In answering a question regarding his decision to lift the novel out of its pre-war Polish context and moving it to 21st Century Portugal where a group of French people are living, Zulawski responded:

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.”

Zulawski’s rejection of cinematic norms is nothing new, but after he made La fidélité he retreated. That film was released in 2000. He never retreated into a forest of seclusion, but it would be fifteen years before he made Cosmos. His return to cinema was not a safe one. Adapting a complex work like the Polish novel, Kosmos, was never going to be an easy cinematic proposition. And while his final film does articulate itself with some newly discovered levity, Cosmos has a great deal in common with some of his key works.

"Love me." Romy Schneider That Most Important Thing / L'important c'est d'aimer Andrzej Zulawski, 1975 Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

“Love me.”
Romy Schneider
That Most Important Thing / L’important c’est d’aimer
Andrzej Zulawski, 1975
Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

This film’s title is actually translated as The Most Important Thing is Love and Romy Schneider’s performance would have been enough to secure the film’s place in French film history. But there is far more continued within the frames than an iconic actor’s work. The film marked a new turn in filmmaking. Zulawski’s examination of the artist finding fulfillment in France’s mid-1970’s theatre scene leaves a mark. It is not so much the point of the movie that matters but they way in which that point flows off the screen. Visceral, angry, obsessive, compulsive and often frantic — L’important c’est d’aimer takes the concept of a tragic love story to poetic heights. The film’s fever-pitched passion and energy haunt the viewer long after the film ends. A contemplation regarding abysmal cinematic opportunities, the protagonist is often looking directly into the audience. While the film is realism it wants to push itself off the screen, into the theatre and run rampant. The characters Zulawski presents are not really all that odd, but the way in which they move, speak and propel is most assuredly eccentric.

"It doesn't hurt." Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance... Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“It doesn’t hurt.”
Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani gave Zulawski the performance of a lifetime in one of the most confounding films of all time. No one was prepared for 1981’s Possession. Adjani’s work on this film was so taxing that it triggered a very real emotional break. It only takes one viewing to underscore this as valid truth. Adjani was dancing on a high wire without a net. Zulawski was able to inspire her to start her performance with emotional hysteria set at Level 5 and then required her to turn it up to Level 21 before the experimental film comes to a crashing end. It is a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Possession remains a testament to the talents of both the leading actor and its creator.

There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s 1981 film. At its most obvious level it is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to turmoils of the psycho-sexual. And, from another perspective, it is a metaphorical depiction of divorce. And it is a matrimonial breakup that takes on apocalyptic proportions. Possession is completely unique, surreal and metaphorical study of identity it extreme crisis. And it is fueled by an inhuman and intolerable repression of control. This control might be that of a stifling marriage or one propelled by government control. Or it could be a combination of both. It doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession — it works from any vantage point.

The passage of time has not dulled its sharp edges. The special effects and gore are still jaw-dropping. This is an Art Film that has become Cult and it continues to spark provocative reaction. It took decades for this very personal film to find its audience. There are several different versions of Possession floating around — all the result of censorship. Mondo Vision beautifully restored this film several years back. It is an essential film for any fans of Surrealism and Horror.

"Are you lost?" Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love. L'amour braque / Mad Love Andrzej Zulawski, 1985 Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

“Are you lost?”
Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love.
L’amour braque / Mad Love
Andrzej Zulawski, 1985
Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

Andrzej Zulawski’s adapts Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in a neon-drenched fever dream. 1985’s L’amour brace’s characters, sets, cinematography, editing and acting indicate that we might have landed in some alternate world. The film moves as if it was pulsating forward via an amphetamine, cocaine and whiskey fueled injection of psychotic convulsions. Zulawski’s experimental film is a twisted Neon and most certainly avant-garde. The film is violent, but the violence never feels “real” and the graphic sexuality is presented in paradoxically restrained ways. The only time the film seems to be able to slow down is when Sophie Marceau and The Idiot consummate to a point of erotic “enjoyment” — And, even then, it almost feels like the camera is so jacked-up it can barely wait to continue it’s frenzied trajectory.

Easily one of the most stylistically influential films to ever come out of French cinema — Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan among them. And it had an impact on music videos of the day. This world of thieves, addicts, artists, whores, drug dealers, pimps, terrorists, anarchists, perverts and lovers is chaotic but somehow organized. Mutually-conflicted screeching rants, dances and terrorism form into a sort of dancing race against time. Zulawski seems to be inspecting everything from political activism, perversion, addiction, insanity, rage, the theatre, criminal motivation, rebellion, sex and love — but through a camera that is dependent on hallucinogenics for vision. Like PossessionL’amour braque is completely unique unto itself. It is safe to state that no other filmmaker will manage to make a movie remotely like these two.

"That's why there are common saints. God's morons with a soul but empty brains." Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity... Szamanka / She-Shaman Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

“That’s why there are common saints. God’s morons with a soul but empty brains.”
Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity…
Szamanka / She-Shaman
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland for 1996’s SzamankaShe-Shaman. Filmed in the newly freed Poland, the director brought the level of intense sexual obsession beyond expectation. It earned the nickname The Last Tango in Warsaw. While it is true that this film pushes further with graphic sexuality, it is seldom actually erotic. Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry push themselves to the extremes that are defined within the script. This might very well be the most challenging of Zulawski’s work. The cinematic provocation is not within the frantic obsessive actions and sheer frenzy, but lies far deeper within the film’s political and philosophical context. The two protagonists pursue their sexual and existential needs toward a deeply nihilistic end. Szmanka aches toward a brilliance that is almost impossible to endure.  Inexperienced actress, Iwona Petry, is near brilliant in her role, but she opted to end her acting career after Szamanka‘s release. Another interesting example of an artist agreeing to join the director on his journey but emotionally exhausted to the point of breaking once arriving at the destination.

Capturing "reality" in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame. Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory La fidélité / Fidelity Andrzej Zulawski, 2000 Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Capturing “reality” in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame.
Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory
La fidélité / Fidelity
Andrzej Zulawski, 2000
Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Zulawski’s La fidelity / Fidelity was released in 2000. The film’s plot is more conventional, but once again his characters burn with almost convulsive urgency. This film forges a path that left many viewers cold. Its highlight is Zulawski”s great love and former muse, Sophie Marceau. She is brilliant in the role and her director understands how to capture not only her beauty but her energy. Years later I remember thinking that it seemed a pale sort of entry to serve as this filmmaker’s final work. Luckily it wasn’t.

Available from Mondo Vision La femme publique Andrzej Zulawski, 1984 Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Available from Mondo Vision
La femme publique
Andrzej Zulawski, 1984
Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

My admiration for Andrzej Zulawski runs deep and it is based within the realm of the personal. He was a brilliant artist who refused to be repressed, suppressed or held to any strict rule when it came to his art. And despite what some have attempted to insinuate, Zulawski was an admirable and kind person. His heart and passion shine through all of his films. Zulawski was always reaching into, under, over and well above the human need for love and understanding.

Even within the bleakness of Possession and Szamanka beats the heart of a very human filmmaker. I’ve decided not to touch on Diabel, La femme publique or On the Silver Globe  — these three films are unique masterworks that I am unable to address in a short blog. I will note that these three films are not really the best starting points for a Andrzej Zulawski neophyte, but then again — maybe they exceptional places in which to take that first plunge.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Boris Neleop’s attempt to engage Zulawski in a conversation about “spasmodic” characters is valid. Nearly all of Zulawski’s characters are extreme. While everything around them might be pushing inward to restrict / oppress — his characters refused to stay within the bounds of circumstances had designed. The need for knowledge, satisfaction, love and understanding leave them no choice other than to be extreme.

This auteur was always a bit sensitive when pressed to discuss the hyper energy or over-the-top passion found in his films. A word like “spasmodic” would make Mr. Zulawski recoil. He shut this sort of commentary so far out of his mind that consideration was no loner possible.

Mr.Neleop is correct: Witold Gombrowicz’s characters are a bit, well, spasmodic. And I suspect that it was their very nature that attracted the great director.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Zulawski had grown up with Gombrowicz’s literary work. My initial knee-jerk reaction toward Zulawski adapting Gombrowicz was that these two thinkers formulated thought in direct opposition to the other. I do not think Gombrowicz liked people. He thought and wrote about the existential, but these pursuits seemed formed from an essential repulsion toward humanity. This is interesting because his fiction is more than a little autobiographical. The way in which Gombrowicz creates the characters of his Kosmos is not kind. Zulawski’s entire film career was focused on the darker aspects of human nature — yet he loved people. He was a fighter and a rebel, but he was never anti-social. And he most certainly was not a pessimist. And, unlike Gombrowicz, he was not vain or concerned when it came to criticism or reward.

decorating lips. Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

She paints her lips as if with blood because she really wants to be an actress…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

I’m scared of the forests. In the midway of this mortal life I found myself in a gloomy world, astray. Gone from the path and even to tell, that forest, how robust its growth, which to remember only, my dismay. Renews in bitterness not far from death. All else will I relate discovered there.

Witold is frantically walking through the edge of a forest. Jonathan Genet has the look of someone from another era, but we already know that Zulawski’s Witold is a 21st century character. At first glance he could be a European fashion model, but his behavior is based within panic. He seems to be consistently on the verge of a mental break. When we meet Zulawski’s Fuchs, played by Johan Liberia, we discover they have traveled in a nice car. Fuchs’ name has been altered in spelling but he is still trying to escape the tyranny of two horrible bosses. In this new universe we know that his employers are high-end fashion designers.

While Wiltold is fragile and paranoid, Fuchs is robust and seemingly up for just about anything. Both behave in ways that lean toward the aberrant. Wiltold wants only to study, but he detests what he studies. Fuchs is primally focused on off screen violent sexual conquests. He reassures his friend that he plays safe, but bleeding wounds, bruises and other bodily issues are scars to his masochistic tendencies. And while it is never fully stated, these two friends would appear to share a bond that goes further than brotherly love. There are hints of a mutual sexual attraction and romantic fondness.

Something sinister is going on! Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Something sinister is going on!
Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Here, in Zulawski’s Cosmos, the two friends have run from France to Portugal. Fuchs is more lighthearted but still aches. Witold’s neurotic need to examine every move / object under his philosopher’s magnifying glass fractures his grasp of reality. The first thing Wiltold experiences after he secures his navigational balance is an encounter with a forest. It is one of the aspects of the world he hates most. As he rushes through the wilds of this forest he encounters the first of many grotesque encounters — a dead sparrow dangling from a string laced noose.

Soon he will discover ghost-like stains upon his rented room’s ceiling. These stains seem to be point toward something.

Fuchs also notices but is more curious than repulsed. The shape of a rake appears in the stain — and soon they discover an actual rake that directs their gaze upward to two small planks of wood hanging from a tree. The planks are tied together and hang by the same string from which the sparrow hangs. They hear talk of a chicken that was spotted hanging not too far away, but they never see it. And thus Wiltold and Fuchs begin to play a paranoid sort of game to attach meaning to these seemingly random signs. The game leads to an axe, a hammer, murder, death and metaphysical omens.

Madame is just overexcited... Sabine Azema Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Madame is just overexcited…
Sabine Azema
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A murdered cat hangs in the courtyard of the Bed and Breakfast. An eccentric married couple have been renting two of their rooms to keep up with mounting expenses. The wife, called Roly-Poly in the Polish novel, is played with goofy  nervous energy by the ever stylish Sabine Azema. We never hear her referred to with the novel’s cruel nickname. Here she is known as Madame Woytis. We soon notice that the female head of the house has a tendency to abruptly shut off in mid speak / movement. Frozen like a photograph. Her beautiful daughter explains, “Oh, it happens to her when ever she gets overexcited.

The daughter is Lena who is married to a seemingly successful business man. He seems to be in constant meetings with a mysterious Russian client. Wiltold is immediately vexed by Lena. But it is her niece, Catherette, with whom he is smitten. Catherette has taken the position of housekeeper. She is devoted but worries her aunt, Madame Woytis, because she refuses to have her mutilated lip cosmetically re-defined. We are told she was in a bus crash. But her mutilation looks more biological in origin. Her lip holds an entrancing mix of disgust and erotic curiosity for both Wiltold and Fuchs.  The male head of the home is Lena‘s stepfather, Leon, played with unhinged lunacy by Jean-Francois Balmer.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'The Pretty' with 'The Good.'" Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘The Pretty’ with ‘The Good.'”
Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Interactions with the family are beyond eccentric. This is a house of organized lunacy and chaos. When Wiltold meets Lena they shake hands maniacally and for an extended time. Soon they are “secretly” copying each other’s animated hand movements. But their odd flirtation is painfully over-the-top. Yet everyone around them is too preoccupied with their own strange non-senscial conversations that only Fuchs notices. The antics of this family appear and sound like something one would see in a  slapstick comedy. There is only one catch: none of it is funny. It is simply strange.  

Unlike Gombrowicz, Zulawski has no interest in making us laugh. He aims to throw his audience off balance. As frantic action and illogical dialogues ape the gestures/sounds of Keystone Cops — the film quickly forms into absurd surrealism. And yet, the film’s cinematography and musical score tease that we are watching some fucked-up romantic mystery. And these are romances and mysteries that seem unsolvable.

As omens of sinister consequence begin to mount the two visitors only become more confused. Wiltold takes a worrying turn when he starts to adapt to sinister cruelty. Ants roam through their food, slugs slither in butter, creepy beetles crawl out of Madame Woytis‘ soup, animals are killed, midnight axe chopping, mutilated lips, fever dreams and a priest who lets loose a swarm of flies when he drops his pants — all of which formulate a sense of doom. Witold is certain that this pending doom threatens to push him into The Void.

When tragedy does strike it fails to register as anything of consequence to the family. Leon takes to the wilderness singing out into what he points out is The Void.

"Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?" Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?”
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

At the film’s mid-point Wiltold has abandoned his studies. Instead he obsesses over Lena and her family. He becomes a willing participant in the sinister happenings that bother him. He turns to philosophical rhetoric for comfort, but begins to chart ideas into some vague sort of story. When we finally see a bit of his writing it is presented on his laptop screen. It is in French and not translated for non-French speakers, but it translates as:

The weight of here and now has become, like the beurk, decisive.

This is in reference to the nausea that begins to overpower Wiltold. Of course we think that Wiltold is writing a story, but there are more than a few hints that he is as motivated by cinema as philosophy. Zulawski has Wiltold and Fuchs poke fun at his own films. At one point it is mentioned that all of these strange happenings might make a good book, but Wiltold disagrees and figures it wold serve better as a movie. Zulawski’s cinematic puzzle ultimately tosses us into meta-film, but this is not an easy-out. It is the only resolution available for Witold, Fuchs, Lena and all involved.

Zulawski takes a poke at Gombrowicz. Of course he has been poking all along. When Fuchs offers a suggestion to the mysteries that have taken place, Witold pulls a bit of met-fiction by explaining his name:

“There’s a reason I have Gombrowicz’s first name. He never knew how to finish his novels nor their meaning.”

 

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski's Universe... Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski’s Universe…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Andrzej Zulawski has said that Cosmos was not only his weirdest film — it was one of the strangest films he had ever seen. I do not agree, but his Cosmos does indeed present an alternative universe. And it forms and is presented in a bizarre range of ways and manner. There is an offer of love, but this universe refuses understanding. Zulawski’s Cosmos is simply idiosyncratic and would far prefer to leave its inhabitants with their own conclusions. But they should never give up or jump off into The Void. This universe is simply too magically odd to skip.

Find Boris Neleop’s interview with Andrzej Zulawski —  here

Mondo Vision’s restored Andrzej Zulawski’s films http://www.mondo-vision.com

Matty Stanfield, 11.22.2016

 

 

 

 

I have been reading and hearing about Marco Ferreri’s notorious 1973 film, La Grande Bouffe,  since adulthood.

Le Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973

Le Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973

Yet I had never had the opportunity to see it until the folks at Arrow Films saw fit to restore and release the film. Even well over 42 years since it debuted at The Cannes Film Festival, this film is still notorious. A simple “google” reveals that Ingrid Bergman tossed her cookies trying to watch it when she was sitting on The Cannes Jury. Marcello Mastroianni’s then lover, Catherine Deneuve, did not speak to him for two weeks after she saw the film. Despite some controversy, the movie was received well be most critics. In fact, Marco Ferreri tied with Jean Eustache and won Cannes’ FIPRESCI Prize. It was also nominated for The Palme d’Or. However, nearly all the positive reviews acted as a warning to the film’s admittedly grotesque use of food, bodily functions and sexuality. There was also an on-going argument in France and among cinephiles as to whether or not this film was bombastic provocation or bold metaphorical satire. Another argument centered on whether the film could be labeled as “Surrealism” or “Absurdism.”

There can be no denying that Le Grande Bouffe strikes a off-key chords of disgust and repulsion.  At the same time, a viewer would be hard-pressed to argue that this strange movie fails to entertain. Most importantly, it does have something to say about the state of society that remains incredibly valid all these years later.

Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Philippe Noiret and Michel Piccoli play friends who have grown bored with life, but they have a plan! La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Philippe Noiret and Michel Piccoli play friends who have grown bored with life, but they have a plan!
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Gathering a spectacular cast of mid-1970’s actors (Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret and Ugo Tognhzzi) together as a group of wealthy men who have lost the desire to live. More to the point, wealthy men who have allowed respective desires to form the focal point of life. And desire alone is certainly not a healthy or sustaining “diet.” This of course ties into the metaphor of consumerism.

As a successful and renowned chef, Ugo Tognhzzi, has spent his life perfecting his dishes to the point that he no longer finds joy in the making or the eating of food. Michel Piccoli is a successful television producer and journalist who seems to have lost interest in what he does. Philippe Noiret may be a respected and powerful judge, but his life has been spent interpreting law and handing out verdicts. Any hope for something deeper appears to have been sapped by an on-going inappropriate sexual relationship with his childhood nanny. It becomes clear that this nanny has been sexually abusing him since he was a child. Sexuality and intimacy clearly lead Philippe to muted place of discomfort. Most explored is the dilemma facing Marcello Mastroianni’s character.

It is Marcello who insists on hiring some prostitutes to join the friends for "the fun." With a hooker's panty as an eye patch -- Let the eating and fornication begin! Marcello Mastroianni La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

It is Marcello who insists on hiring some prostitutes to join the friends for “the fun.” With a hooker’s panty as an eye patch — Let the eating and fornication begin!
Marcello Mastroianni
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

A successful airline pilot, this man focuses all energy on pursuing sexual conquests and resulting pleasures. Sex is of utmost importance to Marcello, but it has become a hallow experience which seems to be heading the way of impotence.

These four friends gather with the plan to fully indulge in a hedonistic series of feasts with the goal of literally eating themselves to death. Enter an idea of “Surrealism” which is not really accurate. While it might be very hard, in theory an individual could eat him/herself to death. Yes, it might be very difficult but it can be done. The film’s core plot is less Surreal and more Absurdist. Le Grande Bouffe is also satire at it’s most dark and revolting. The film is very focused on the human body and digestion.

Ah, delicious! Michel Piccoli examines the head of a newly butchered hog. La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Ah, delicious!
Michel Piccoli examines the head of a newly butchered hog.
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Quite literal in its use of The Scatacological, The Big Feast is filled with fart sound effects, swelling bellies, burbs, vomiting, exploding toilets, plumbing and colon ruptures. Uncontrolled defecation and farting are less funny when presented so graphically and for so long. In many ways Ferreri is testing his audiences’ patience and will to make it through his movie.

Mastroianni’s character’s life focus is sex. As soon as the men settle in to the ornate house where they plan to kill themselves, he decides he must have sex or the “fun” of gorging themselves to death will not be as rewarding. Enter the prostitutes and the friends’ mutually shared view of women as objects.

Appreciating the nude art on the grounds... La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Appreciating the nude art on the grounds…
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

These men have essentially no real healthy connection to women. They are playthings with very little else to offer. Marco Ferreri has cast some truly beautiful actresses as the film’s prostitutes. It is hard to know if any of these actors can act because they are given very little to do other than to offer their bodies to the men. Of course, we are never allowed to forget that this is not “fun” for the women. They are there for the money. It is interesting to note that it the prostitutes who quickly grasp what is going on amongst these friends. These women have no concern regarding their clients’ macabre plan. They just want to be paid.

Late 1960’s/Early 1970’s Euro-Sex Symbol, Solange Blondeau, is given the most to do and she does it well. Disgusted by the amount of food she sees, she voices complaint at the lunacy because she is almost ill just watching the eating not out of any concern. She and another prostitute briefly discuss the unimportance of men. Solange goes along for the ride.

"What is that?" Marcello seems more interested in the manifold as phallus and food than Solange's beauty. Mastroianni, Blondeau and intrusive manifold... Le Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

“What is that?”
Marcello seems more interested in the manifold as phallus and food than Solange’s beauty.
Mastroianni, Blondeau and intrusive manifold…
Le Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

When Marcello brings her into the garage to show her a beautiful antique car, she is less annoyed by his use of a manifold as phallus than she is by the food he forces her to eat. The scene is intentionally gross. There is nothing erotic here. But there is another invited guest to these friends’ Nihilistic big feasts, a seemingly “proper” elementary school teacher. This was Andrea Ferreol’s film debut. She is positively brilliant in this film and offers an interestingly odd twist to the tale.

It may not be clear if the teacher understands, but there is nothing “appropriate” or remotely innocent about her. She quickly seduces Philippe’s judge. She cleverly morphs from sweet school teacher to zaftig Sex Kitten. Not only eager to have sex with the judge, she is more than willing to serve as erotic object for all four men. Andrea Ferreol is stunningly beautiful, but not in the conventional way of the prostitutes. Interestingly, it is Andrea who Marco Ferreri attaches cinematic eroticism. It is actually only with her that he indulges in 1970’s Euro-Eroticism.

Andrea Ferreol gladly offers up her lovely body to Marcello Mastroianni. Despite her beauty and willingness to play his games, he has lost the ability to participate. The film is very clear that this is not her fault. Andrea Ferreol & Mastroianni La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Andrea Ferreol gladly offers up her lovely body to Marcello Mastroianni. Despite her beauty and willingness to play his games, he has lost the ability to participate. The film is very clear that this is not her fault.
Andrea Ferreol & Mastroianni
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

A pale, curvaceous and inviting bounty of flesh, Andrea is the true sexual feast for these men. Ever game for anything each man wants to try or do, Andrea is also craving the food and the sex. In one of the more darkly comic and equally disgusting scenes, Andrea forces herself on an ailing Michel. As Michel moans in pain Andrea rides hard and fast. As he submits so do his bowels. It is deeply repulsive but inexplicably funny. Later she will allow Ugo to use her shapely buttocks to form a huge tart. She also attempts to satisfy Marcello’s erotic needs with little luck. As inappropriate as everything is, there is something to be said about the fact that Ferreri celebrates Andrea’s body rather than make fun of it.

However, there is something sinister about Andrea. Aside from the fact that she is not bothered by the sight, sounds, smells of stomach-churning bodily functions — she is ever eating though never to the point of the extreme as her hosts. She is also forever wanting to sex it up. Most disturbingly, she seems to take great joy in assisting these men in their pursuit of death by gluttony.  She begins to take a sort of psychopathic joy in it. Andrea is fully committed to assisting these men on their mission. Andrea Ferreol is easily the best performance in the film. And it is completely fearless.

Look! More food! EAT THIS! La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Look! More food! EAT THIS!
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Suffice to say, this is a very strange movie. It is also almost epic in length. It runs over two hours. This is a long film. It is certainly not for everyone. However, there is a great deal that is worthy here.

While there is most certainly a societal commentary being expressed, in the end friendship and shared sadness seem to be almost as essential as the societal aspects. Amidst all the folly and nauseating actions, the filmmaker succeeds in demonstrating the love shared by these four men. Ultimately, they stand united. A very wrong and warped idea emerges that despite all of their faults, these four men have each other. It is an unexpected bit of human tenderness that manages to surface. No matter how one wants to find meaning, this film is well made, provocative, energetic and crudely funny.

Somehow Marco Ferreri film makes us actually care about these sad men. That in of itself is a major feat.

Uh, oh. A colon rupture! Um, yes. It is shown. La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

Uh, oh. A colon rupture! Um, yes. It is shown.
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

If I had to offer an easy summary of this early 1970’s film it would be to imagine Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover as an obvious comedy and minus vengeance.  Actually, I’d be willing to bet that Greenaway’s film would not exist had Ferreri’s film never been made. There are a number of similarities. Greenaway had already cast Andrea Ferreol in his earlier brilliant film, A Zed and Two Noughts. Interestingly, Greenaway’s NC-17 film had an easier time in the late 1980’s than Ferreri’s film in the early 1970’s. The film was heavily censored and even banned. Locating a full cut of this film has been difficult until Arrow Films’ recent restoration.

Food, Sex & Human Cruelty The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover Peter Greenaway, 1989 Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Food, Sex & Human Cruelty
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Peter Greenaway, 1989
Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Of course, Greenaway had a far more crucial political satire in mind at the time he made The Cook. While Marco Ferreri’s societal commentary is aimed at consumerism and the vacancy of wealthy men, Peter Greenaway was intellectually crafting a gut-punching critique of Thatcher’s England the human cruelty that resulted within it. It is the better film, but in many ways it is even harder to watch.

Michael Nyman’s iconic musical score for this infamous 1989 film. It is a major player in Greenaway’s film. La Grande Bouffe also offers a surprising importance on it’s musical score. And the score is totally mis-matched to our perceptions of what we anticipate in the way of a musical film score. Philippe Sarde composed a truly lovely score for the twisted La Grande Bouffe. It is music of bittersweet lush romanticism.

Interestingly, Sarde’s score makes sense.

"Why eat when there is no hunger?" Michel Piccoli & Solange Blondeau La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973 Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

“Why eat when there is no hunger?”
Michel Piccoli & Solange Blondeau
La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973
Cinematography | Mario Vulpiani

And here lies the major challenge of La Grande Bouffe: Is the ‘pay-off‘ worth the investment of time to watch it?

Yes and no. I think the answer to this question can only be answered on an individual basis. Despite the unpleasantness, I think this is a well-crafted and important film. That being stated, approach with caution. It is rare that I agree with the MPAA, but La Grande Bouffe is deserving of the “NC-17” rating that it has been assigned.

And a tip of the hat to Arrow Films of the UK as they continue to raise their bar on restoration and distribution beyond region restrictions.

La Grande Bouffe Marco Ferreri, 1973

La Grande Bouffe
Marco Ferreri, 1973

Their job is every bit on par with The Criterion Collection. I suspect that we are going to see an interesting turn in the world of Art House Boutique Labels as Arrow Films continues to have a more current perspective on Film Art while The Criterion Collection seems to be continuing to lose touch with their younger audiences’ cinematic interests. Do not mis-read me. TCC is going nowhere, but their recent choices for film restoration/distribution have been more than a little off. Arrow Films seems to be taking appropriate aim at Film Art that appeals to a growing population of younger cinephiles who have interest beyond the Film Masters.

Matty Stanfield, 11.5.15