Saturday, January 28, 2012

36. POSSESSION (1981)

Though I've seen this Andrzej Zulawski film numerous times, it continues to surprise me with scenes I don't quite remember seeing before (in this case, a later scene involving a drowned dog) and with disturbing shocks to the memory about where certain scenes occur in its continuity (I remembered Adjani's subway freak-out occurring earlier in the scenario, and not as a flashback, for some reason). This may have something to do with the fact that my first few viewings were of the abortive US release version, which not only removed roughly 40 minutes but rescored the film and added some psychedelic solarization effects to mask its butchery. It may also be due to the way the film denies the viewer any recourse to a conscious approach and directly occupies the subconscious side of the disintegrating relationship between Mark (Sam Neill, playing a spy who's coming in from the cold, so to speak) and his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani), who has abandoned their marriage-with-child in his absence for an affair with new age guru Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) and subsequently moved beyond his enlightenment to nurture the godhead within herself... which takes the literal form of a monster.

Someone clever at Turner Classic Movies had the idea to show this film in tandem with Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965); both films were made by Polish expatriates and are about psychotic French women who give vent to their madness in empty apartments and lure various curiosityseekers to their deaths. But POSSESSION is also indebted to David Cronenberg's THE BROOD (1979), in that it's about a woman who literally births a Monster of the Id -- and then quantum leaps beyond this idea by having her fuck the resulting Carlo Rambaldi-made octopus in a surreal moment that brings Hokusai's 1814 painting "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" to startlingly icky life. ("Anna" resonates with "Ama," the female component in the painting's Japanese title "Tako to Ama.") When her husband catches her en flagrante with this thing, Anna looks into his face and repeats the word "almost...", an incantation that ultimately permits it to assume his form. Meanwhile, Anna has her own physical surrogate in the form of their son's schoolteacher, whom Mark fucks into being in his own way.

In the past, I've been deliberately provocative in calling this one of the great films about marriage, but I've been married long enough to state this with some authority, and each new viewing assures me this is not really too extreme an exaggeration. Every marriage is challenged by the growth of the individuals within it, and any enduring marriage must learn to stretch, to accomodate, to forgive each partner's faults and needs and aspirations. The more passionate the marriage, the more screaming is likely ensue, and Mark and Anna's connection is so passionate that they can only end one argument by cutting themselves with an electric knife. (Possessed with restored calm, they agree it doesn't hurt as much as everything else they're feeling.) The goal is to survive the pain, the uncertainty and the horror of our humanity for the right to die as a spiritual couple, which Mark and Anna somehow do, miserably yet triumphantly, leaving their strange-eyed representatives behind them to withstand another apocalypse in the generational war between the sexes -- if they should ever dare to open the door that separates them. (The film is set in Berlin, and wall stands directly outside Anna's pièd-a-terreur on Sebastianstrasse.) Adjani is formidable, giving one of the genre's greatest female performances, and perhaps its most incendiary; Neill is fascinating, nearly as mad as she; and Bennent is strangely endearing, hatefully self-conscious in his artistry of eros and self-defense, but when he admits to being as lost in this firestorm of marriage as we are, we hug his repugnance to us like a life buoy.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies (in its restored Euro version, again disappointingly missing the shot of two alien eyes staring up from the gooey palms of Adjani's hands, in the wake of her subway "miscarriage," so far included only in the original US release).


  1. I found Adjani to be so bad in this movie as to make it almost unwatchable. And she is an actress I usually like. Her hysterics are not the least bit believable. I never once forget that I'm watching an actress performing(badly).

  2. Obviously I disagree. I know you're not citing her voice as an issue, but I've had the fleeting thought, now and then, that the film is hindered to some degree by Adjani's thick accent, which renders some of the dialogue unintelligible -- and the closer you get to understanding it, the dialogue is really brilliant throughout. But then I realized that the different accents in the film are illustrative of walls between people which HAVE been vaulted through individual effort, the extremes we go through to understand each other, so it's valuable to have the ragged edges of communication getting in the way of our clear comprehension.

  3. Tim, would you know when Mondo Vision plans on releasing this provocative film in the context of their supreme Zulawski box sets?

  4. I saw this twice in NYC late last year in 35mm screenings (Film Forum) and the TCM Underground DVR recording (in HD!) a couple more times. I still have the DVR recording, and I'm keeping it until Mondo Vision release it in a few months on NTSC DVD (

    This movie is alive, a breathing and constantly-expanding body of work that has a way of worming its way into the core of your cinephile being and not letting go. I went into the theater not knowing a thing about "Possession" and walked out a changed man that couldn't believe not only what I had just seen/heard, but how thinking about it affected my own perceptions about my life and the people I know (and I'm not even married). "Possession" is the best of an ongoing mini-genre of movies (the aforementioned "The Brood" and Lars von Trier's "Antichrist") in which talented directors manage to translate the pain and visceral anger from their desintegrating marriages into a cinematic experience. These movies appear to be out-of-control and too-personal (all three have soul-baring pain and bloody violence) but are actually pretty dispassionate, in-control works of cinematic craftsmen using their personal failures to ignite a creative firestorn within these narratives.

    The one thing I wanted to know right after I saw "Possession" was who the hell was this Andrzej Zulawski guy that had made it. What had he done prior to it, and how could he have possibly followed it with anything even remotely as good as what he pulled in 1981? Lucky for me the Brooklyn BAM Cinematek museum this past March had an Andrzej Zulawski Retrospective (the first ever in the US) with all 12 of his movies in 35mm plus two made-for-Polish-TV shorts from the 60's.

    Here's a trailer for that BAM retrospective using clips from all 12 of Zulawski's movies (WARNING, NSFW AND SPOILERS FOR "POSSESSION" TIM HAS ALREADY DESCRIBED:

    I've now seen 10 of the 12 Zulawski features plus the two shorts, and the two I didn't see ("L'Amour Braque" and "La Femme Publique") I bought from Mondo Vision's distributor website ( for a rainy day. While some of Zulawski's other work left me cold ("On the Silver Globe," "My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days") the stuff that I really liked ("Fidelity," "The Last Third of the Night," etc.) both enlightened me and shown me a different side of the man's mise-en-scene.

    I went into Zulawski's BAM retrospective chasing the "Possession" dragon and, except for one feature ("Szamanka," a Polish "Last Tango in Paris" with a definite "Possession" vibe), his other work was an entirely different kind of over-the-top and hysterical beast that I was glad to have been exposed to (even the bad one's). Five months ago I didn't know who Zulawski was or that "Possession" existed. Now "Possession" lives in me and the minds of anyone that sees it (whether they liked the movie or not) and Zulawski is one of my favorite directors. Cool, uhh?

    If you live in the San Francisco area "Possession" and four other Zulawski movies (his Polish one's) will be shown in 35mm screening in early May by YBCA:

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  6. @dad1153
    Unless something happened inbetween, the TCM Underground version can't have been in HD. The master was SD NTSC.

  7. Tim, do we know for sure that Zulawski directed the "hand in eyes" shot, or ever intended it to be included in the film? I always had the suspicion it was an insert done specifically for the mutilated 80-minute (!) version, which I can't imagine Zulawski having any input on whatsoever.

  8. ^^^ But wouldn't it be cool if Mondo Vision included that butchered 80 min. version as an extra? You know, for comparison's sake. Of course Zulawski's head would explode, so maybe not such a great idea.

    David, it was obviously an upconvert HD feed of the SD master that TCM got a hold of (the same old tube telecine transfer used for every other home video release of "Possession" on the market). I taped it off of TCM-HD and, while an upconvert, it looks good-enough for me to say it's an HD recording (DVR recorded the HD feed of an SD upconvert) of "Possession." Jeez, talk about picky! ;-)

  9. "Possession" is screening in 35mm May 20, 21 and 23 at Chicago's Siskel Film Center: :-)

  10. Has anyone else noticed the striking similarity in both looks but ESPECIALLY IN VOICE of actor Sam Neill to the late JAMES MASON?