Born as we are out of chaos, why can we never establish contact with it? No sooner do we look at it than order, pattern, shape is born under our eyes.” So wrote Witold Gombrowicz a half century ago in Cosmos, and Andrzej Zulawski has taken the words as a personal challenge. Never a stranger to pushing the limits of control, the Polish director of Possession and other freakouts has adapted Gombrowicz’s novella for his first feature in 15 years. The story—a failed law student, Witold, and his friend go on holiday and enter the maelstrom of a family bed-and-breakfast—doesn’t so much develop as it shatters and reforms, refracted through the student’s demented, obsessive perspective.
Existential farce is one way of describing the film, though that’s partly Zulawski’s energetic response to the book’s specifically literary brand of narrative and verbal hijinks. The filmmaker mostly crams his cast in the house and environs, and apparently told everyone to act at full-tilt. Attempting to connect the dots between mysterious events, Witold (Jonathan Genet) is a whirlwind of semiotic and sexual confusion; toying with him, Victoria Guerra as Lena is actually better and more precise at such labile shifts; presiding like a grande dame of extremes is Sabine Azéma, the matriarch. Father (Jean-François Balmer) spews nonsense, and then there’s the naïve hare-lipped second daughter (Clémentine Pons).
The frenzy and wordplay from the text don’t always translate precisely to the movie, but that hardly seems the point: in tribute to one of his favorite writers, Zulawski fully adopts Gombrowicz’s mischief, with results that careen and stumble across the screen.