Andrzej Żuławski wrote Possession, his only English-language film, in the midst of a soul-murdering divorce from his first wife (and star of his first film, Third Part of the Night), actress Malgorzata Braunek. Just prior, he’d spent a handful of years adapting a movie he’d hoped would become his masterpiece, On the Silver Globe, based on a series of novels by his turn-of-the-century Polish writer grand-uncle, Jerzy Żuławski. Just as it was nearing completion, Poland underwent a series of political upheavals. The newly-appointed vice-minister of cultural affairs, Janusz Wilhelmi, saw Żuławski’s science fiction story as being too allegorical to the Polish and their seemingly endless battle with Communism—which infected their country immediately upon the defeat of the genocidal Nazis in WWII. The film, props and costumes of On the Silver Globe were confiscated and believed destroyed. Żuławski was exiled from Poland.
“[S]ocieties are very ugly, basically. And a filmmaker who flatters the society in which he lives for me is a skunk. Almost everyday in the Polish radio, TV and newspapers it slowly, slowly emerges that everyday in the countryside they murdered the Jews, because they were free to do so. And so there are very few clean spots, even as they are kept, of course, magnificently clean. But it is mostly the intelligentsia which preserves this consciousness and moral attitudes.” (“Beginnings Are Useless: A Conversation with Andrzej Żuławski”--Written by The Ferroni Brigade, Published on 12 March 2012)
He returned to his second-home of France in utter emotional turmoil. The venom he felt inside towards Polish politicos, history, filmmaking and women came spilling out of him in the form of a screenplay about the apocalyptic dissolution of a marriage, externalization of unhappiness, basically every cruelty two former lovers can commit on each other. It is also a film about hideous transformations and bloodlust that can come about from internalized rage-fueled need to remake one’s world for satisfaction. A film that Żuławski would attempt to pitch to Paramount head Charles Bluhdorn as, “a film about a woman who fucks an octopus.”
Having waded through the excess and excretion of Possession for two days now and reading as much about it in an attempt to understand it more fully, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one has ever seen the film in the exact same way, nor have they ever seen the film in the same way twice. For all the hysteria, convulsion and viscera, Possession is the visual representation of “mercurial”, slipping and changing from you as you watch. A viewer is a different person at the end of a screening and, therefore by the act of observation, the film has become a different thing as well.
Husband Mark (Sam Neill, fresh off of The Final Conflict: Omen III, which he won "thanks" to his mentor James Mason) has just returned from some sort of vague business trip and Wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) meets him outside their West German apartment complex with the posture of a coiled cobra. The divide between them is already present, and Mark isn’t sure if he should pick up his luggage or leave it on the sidewalk. Finally, he must pursue her into their home, juggling bags as he goes. They have a son, Bob, who enjoys scuba dives in the bathtub. Bob greets Mark warmly, happy to see his father, and in the presence of their son, husband and wife are smiling, doting parents. Later, in bed, the couple try to reconcile their emotional distance.
“Maybe all couples go through this,” Anna suggests, without a hint of belief in her words. “Were you unfaithful to me?”
“Truthfully, not really,” is Mark’s cryptic reply. “Without you I wouldn’t feel anything at all.”
Anna: “And what do you feel?”
Mark: “Are you honestly interested?”
Anna shakes her head, “No.”
The next morning he resigns his position with his firm, giving a suggestion for his successor. He will no longer report on the comings and goings of “their subject” who wears pink socks. When pressed for a reason for his leaving, he answers “Family.”
But as far as Anna is concerned, there is no family any longer. She stays away from them for days at a time. Going through her things, Mark finds a postcard of the Taj Mahal from a man he believes to be her lover. It’s inscribed in block lettering: “I’ve seen half of Gods’s face here. The other half is you… Heinrich.” Back-and-forth follows—Mark destroys a café and must be tackled by several workers before he hurts Anna; Anna leaves, returns to see Bob, leaves again. Mark checks into a hotel for three weeks and undergoes what can only be described as “withdrawl”, foaming at the mouth and rocking. When he returns to their shared apartment, he finds Bob sitting in filth, his face smeared with whatever he’s found to eat. Mommy has been gone “a long time”. When she finally does come back, Mark tells her that he’s taking over and she’s to leave. But she never leaves for good, never long enough for either of them to heal.
During their separation, Mark obsesses over Anna. She never did find the ability to explain to him what went wrong, where he was inadequate. Truthfully, she’s unable to speak coherently to him; whatever breakdown she’s suffering affects her concentration and articulation. While he is gripped with psychotic rage and desperation, she is gripped by desperation of a different kind, as well as an engulfing sense of shame, regret and even schizophrenia.
Confronting Heinrich for himself, Mark finds a middle-aged poseur-philosopher-playboy who swans about and invades Mark’s space, touching him too much and too intimately, yet still manages to beat the husband to a pulp. And the truth is that Heinrich hasn’t seen Anna either. Not for some time, and he’d like to know where she is as well.
Humiliated as much as a man can be, Mark concentrates on Bob, trying to be a good father while constantly teetering on the brink of madness. (Indeed, there are sequences of him in a rocking chair, violently swaying too far back, too far forward, and there is certainly an abyss yawning at his feet.) Meeting Bob’s teacher, Helen, he’s shocked at the resemblance to Anna, convinced his wife is wearing a wig and colored contacts to turn her eyes such magnificent, alien green. Helen is everything that Anna is not: clad in whites and creams as opposed to Anna’s dark blues and blacks; she laughs and the laughter reaches her eyes. She dotes on Bob. For a desperate moment, Mark thinks that she might even be a replacement for Anna, but Bob’s inconsolable nightmare leaves him begging for his real “mommy”, and will not take Helen as a substitute.
Where Mark has desperation, Anna has her mad secrets. In a sharp narrative left-turn, it’s revealed that she’s taken up residence in an unfurnished and decrepit apartment and has been joined by something bloody, fleshy and pulsing in the corner of the bathroom. Confronted by a detective Mark has hired to find her, her reticence in his presence turns to lunatic laughter and finally bloody murder as she slashes his throat with a broken wine bottle. When this man’s partner—and lover—Zimmerman, turns up looking for him, he too becomes something for the mutating creature to consume. Before murdering him as well she indicates the monster to Zimmerman and says, flatly, “He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.”
Breaking points actually come and go from here on out. Still shutting Mark out of her love, she stops his questions by holding an electric carving knife to her neck. After he tenderly sees to his wounds, she rejects him again and he too has a go with the knife, carving furrows into his arm. “It doesn’t hurt.” Anna says. He shakes his head, agreeing. And we know this is all going to come to a horrific conclusion. “Horrific” in the full sense of the word and not because of some phallic creature bloodying up Anna’s sheets. These two people are going to tear each other into atoms and take out everyone around them—Heinrich, Anna’s friend (and Mark’s convenient baby sitter and lover (or “loather” perhaps) Margit, Helen, Bob, Heinrich’s elderly mother—no one here is going to get out alive, no matter what your definition of “alive” might be.
I believe I could describe Possession scene-by-scene in great detail, down to the last shot, and still not give anything away. Looking over my notes, sequences written down don’t correspond with the way I’m remembering them. What is foremost in my mind is the final shot of the film—not to overuse the word, but it is truly apocalyptic, bathed in white light, with the din of war planes dominating the soundtrack; and the final shot of little Bob running from Helen, screaming “don’t open it”, don’t reveal that figure caressing the frosted glass of the front door, hurling himself face down into the tub but refusing to come up for air. Or the scene of Anna and Mark, his past having come out of nowhere to finally destroy them, their faces drenched with blood, kissing and, seemingly, trying to devour the mouth of the other. When the credits rolled, I felt like I’d witnessed something I shouldn’t have, and I’m not speaking hyperbolicly. But I’m not sure if it was the intimate and personal mutual destruction that still makes me uneasy, or if it was—finally, for someone who once-devoured “extreme cinema”—something that may have very well been the definition of taboo. Forbidden.
TFB: We think it is one of the ideas that contributes to making your work so personal that you have no other choice but taking it personal. Which may be another reason they don't fit this concept of categorization: Putting things into categories helps to maintain a distance, to keep the art at arm's length.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Distance...well, that is a question which could be debated for hours. I am also a member of the audience, and since I was educated in a certain way I can see so many different kinds of films and like them equally. I don't want to be pretentious and say: That's the only way—my way! And please hate the others, but not my film! That would be absolutely monstrous and I am too aware of the fact that cinema is like a tree. On a tree, of course, you have different branches, but we're all sitting on the same tree. Now it's electronic, but yesterday it was still chemical and theatrical. You have to humble and accept that we all are on that tree. But at the same time I am not humble because I do what I please. And I do this only because I think I am absolutely the same guy as any other guy in the cinema. I am not different.
TFB: That is the democratic idea: that everybody is the same in the audience.
ŻUŁAWSKI: Yes. But sometimes the audience elects Hitler and sometimes they applaud Stalin.
(The Ferroni Brigade)
(The Ferroni Brigade)
As said, Żuławski was not in the healthiest frame of mind when he conceived of Possession. Nor, apparently, was he any better during production. The performances of both Adjani and Neill are off-putting from the very beginning. One reviewer wrote that the movie “starts with hysteria and ramps up from there” and that’s very true. Both actors emote like caricatures from the silent era, eyes and tongues lolling, hands grasping at their throats or clawing through the air. For the first half of the film they scream relentlessly at each other, becoming incoherent with their inability to communicate. When the two alpha males meet for the first time, Mark and Heinrich almost literally dance a waltz around each other in the narrow hallway. Even Heinrich’s beating of Mark has a balletic, stylized quality, half Baryshnikov and half Maxwell Smart (he karate-chops a lot).
But where Mark is all Noh Theater, Adjani is given the unenviable task of creating a person out of the beautiful, treacherous china doll Anna. She is all wild eyes, wide eyes, silently mouthing answers and delivering gibbering, nearly nonsensical dialogue while trying to explain herself. In one heart-rending scene, she stands beneath a crucified Christ statue and whimpers, pleads, begs for answers without saying a single word, pleading like a child or a wounded animal for some comfort. Minutes later she walks in an oblivious daze, immune to the world. While on a bus a wino reaches into her groceries and nicks a banana from her bunch, replacing the rest, and she never even looks up.
In the film’s most central set piece, after Mark receives a film shot by Heinrich of Anna teaching ballet—and literally torturing a young ballerina, holding her extended leg in the air and grasping her head back—Anna reveals a moment she experienced within a German subway tunnel. At first stunned and sleepwalking, she bursts into uncontrollable laughter, slamming herself and her satchel of milk against the wall, covering everything in filmy white. Within seconds she is gyrating in the air, seemingly and alternately raped or pleasured by something invisible, her limbs and head lolling like a drunken marionette, hips thrusting and throat choking. Finally she collapses to her knees as blood, and a variety of other-colored liquids, pour out of her, forming a pool between her legs. “I had two sisters fighting inside of me,” she tells Mark. “Sister Faith and Sister Chance, with their fingers clawed around each other’s necks. What I miscarried that day was Sister Faith. All I had left was Sister Chance and I had to take care of her.”
Unlike the other scenes of rampant emoting, the tunnel miscarriage, a five-minute, near-unbroken shot, never takes on a ludicrous edge. We are party to a lone woman’s nervous breakdown. (Indeed, both Mark and Anna are virtually alone throughout the movie. There are only a handful of extras who share the frame with them during the infrequent exterior street scenes.) “Possession is at once a dread-inducing ordeal, a bloody arabesque, and a swooning celebration of Adjani’s long, cloaked form in perpetual motion. The convulsive action reaches its peak, if not its dramatic climax, in the near-real-time scene in which, famously directed to “fuck the air,” contortionist Adjani bounces off the walls of an underground passage, hemorrhaging bloody goo from every orifice.” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice)
According to Ben Sachs (Andrzej Zulawski's Possession, uncut), “Possession is an extraordinary document of actors pushed to their breaking point: it's frightening partly because Neill and Adjani look as if they're really losing their minds. Before shooting began, Żuławski spent several days working them into a trance-like state that allowed them to express freely their most primal emotions. This method was inspired by Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski (a major influence on Żuławski ), who viewed performing as a "total act" and felt that actors should exploit the intimacy of live theater to confront the audience directly. Possession succeeds like few other movies in re-creating this onscreen; in fact Żuławski claims that when Adjani saw the completed film, she couldn't believe what she'd done. She shouted at him, ‘You have no right to put the camera in this way because it looks inside one's soul!’” Despite being crowned Best Actress at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, Adjani was so shaken as witness to her own performances she attempted suicide (some report at the festival itself immediately after the screening).
“And even if it is a naively mystical vision, I think there's something [deep] going on stage or screen, if we give up, sacrifice. Of course, I never accept the [productions] such as Possession, which Żuławski thought insulting me [would] make myself better embody my crazy character: never revile me like that ... But interpreting a wandering soul, I know. The female misfortune, I know.” [Adjani, (poorly translated by Google Translate and yours truly)- ]“Possession has been singled out lately on the repertory circuit in the U.S. after a very successful run at Film Forum. You’ve called it a “personal” film. What do you think of its recent success?”
“Please, how can I answer that? Possession was born of a totally private experience. After making That Most Important Thing (1975) in France, I went back to Poland to get my family (which at the time was my wife and my kid) and bring them to France. I had two or three interesting proposals to make really big European films. But when I returned to Poland I saw exactly what the guy in Possession sees when he opens the door to his flat, which is an abandoned child in an empty flat and a woman who is doing something somewhere else. It’s so basically private. Now I can go back to it many years later, but even the dialogue in certain kitchen scenes and certain private scenes is like I just wrote it down after some harrowing day. So it’s amazing how such a private thing became a kind of icon. You know Adjani got the prize at Cannes for this film, she got the Cesar which is the French Oscar and 14 other prizes in many festivals. Please believe me, it’s mentally very disturbing to see that your very private little film became something in which so many people recognize something of themselves. Thirty years later I’m still thinking about it.” [Film Comment Interview: Andrzej Zulawski By Margaret Barton-Fumo on 3.6.2012]I suppose one could endlessly argue Żuławski’s misogyny—“I would say that Sam Neill, Francis Huster, and the others had the difficult parts to play because the women in these films appear like a tornado. They were banging into a scene and making a great fuss and being so expressive, and like you said at the beginning, “hysterical,” right? They make all of this noise, but the male actors are just playing the glue between the scenes. They keep the films together, which may not seem like such a fantastic starring role, but they did it with such talent and devotion that I almost like them better than the women. The women got the prizes, they got the applause, they were brilliant, they were spastic. But the men had the hard work of keeping the whole film together.”—and one can make excuses for this by reminding the viewer of the director’s hideous divorce, or the dehumanization he suffered as a Pole growing up under first Nazi rule and then Stalin’s iron fist. To me, these arguments are as hazardous as defending Roman Polanski the man to justify appreciating Polanski the artist. As personal as Possession is—for the director, the actors, Carlo Rambaldi creator of “the creature”—it remains what it is on the screen. What would you think of it on its own if you had none of the information before you?
In point of fact, how would one judge the U.S. release of Possession, cut by over 40 minutes into an incoherent and over-stimulated miasma? “Two men and a woman no one could ever possess,” warns the over dramatic American voice over. “Mortal terror, inhuman ecstasy. Soon you will know the meaning of Possession.” Which is a big fat lie if there ever was one. (See below) If at two hours Żuławski’s cut remains open to interpretation, then the edit for the consumer culture is rendered incomprehensible for pandering to the visceral. The very first time I viewed Possession in 1994, before I was even aware of another version, the videocassette was just an assault of two people screaming at each other, excelling even the most portentous madness to be found in Marat/Sade, which is at least set in a real asylum. This “cut” also beefs up the part of the monster, adding and duplicating shots, optically rendering Anna’s periodic murders in slow motion to get the best of the spurting blood. The ending is altered (from what I remember) and nothing is resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. With the emphasis on the blood and the sex, it’s no wonder Possession got caught up in Great Britain’s “Video Nasty” crusade in the ‘80s; the narrative has been reduced to prurience.
That’s not to say that Żuławski’s version delivers any real satisfaction either. This isn’t a film about resolution by any stretch. Conversations end abruptly, with slamming doors or mutual mutilation, slaps, sneers, bloodied faces. Scenes halt, the players suspended in inaction or impotence (however you want to define that word). Even the ending is just a stopping point and answers pour over the viewer like rain. Is this miscarried, tentacled lover/child of Anna’s her attempt to create a “perfect” version of Mark, for that’s apparently what it’s been morphing into (and with the appearance of a second Mark near the end, one of the few rational suppositions in an irrational narrative)? Is Helen really a doppelganger of Anna, or a more perfect mate that Mark has projected an Anna mask upon, preserving her delicate beauty by stretching it over a genuine Madonna/whore? What was Mark’s “assignment” and why was he hunted for it in the end? And was that part of the story intentionally left up in the air, as a commentary on Poland’s Stasi?
However, the biggest question is the one that begins the film and it’s the only one the characters beg answering: “What happened to us?” “Possession is honest enough to depict the emotional extremes of passion and conflict experienced during a breakup, yet self-aware enough to acknowledge how histrionic and ridiculous such squabbles can appear to outside observers. It’s both uncomfortably candid and deeply cynical. And with its blood-and-gasoline-drenched apocalyptic ending, Possession joins the recent Melancholia in portraying the sense that it must be the literal end of the world simply because it feels that way.” [L. Caldoran, Cinespect]
Rediscovery of Possession is relatively recent. It was unseen in its uncut form until a VHS release in 1999, where it was quickly embraced by many of the same critics who originally dismissed it. It’s been compared to Polanski’s English-language debut, Repulsion, as well as Cronenberg’s The Brood and most recently to Von Trier’s hateful Anti-Christ. And while all of those high-class films touch on similar emotions, Possession remains something ineffable. At times it’s an endurance test, a heartbreaking Scenes of a Marriage, a shrill theatrical camp, a monster movie, an end-of-the-world allegory, a spy thriller. All of these elements keep Possession outside of an appropriate genre box but its these disparities that keep the film, as I said, fluid.
As a jaded film student watching a bastardized version, I was just as quick to dismiss Possession as those who saw it premiere. My initial distaste prevented me from revisiting it despite owning the original cut for several years now. During my first viewing, untainted by much of the film’s or filmmaker’s history, I was put off by the histrionics, the unsatisfying narrative, the seemingly improvisational jumble of dialogue spewed out by Neill and Adjani as if they were given single emotions—rage and despair—to act out. But the film began its transformation approximately ten minutes in, with the introduction of young Bob and the mutable influence he has over his psychopathic parents. During their all-too-brief interactions with their son, one can see the Anna and Mark that existed during the good times. It’s the film’s sole emotional anchor and it leaves an impression deep enough to prevail when the screaming renews.
My second time through, the next day, was more investigative. Now that the shrill surface had washed away, I could see what was really underneath. Specifically: anguish. When Mark goes on his hotel bender, he really does seem to be suffering some sort of withdrawal. He no longer understands the woman he fell in love with. Worse, she doesn’t understand who she is any longer either. Helen and the monster/Mark clone are simultaneously projections, doppelgangers, wishes and manifestations of shame.
Suddenly, the title made much more sense, but in even more esoteric ways. Think of the word, “Possession”. Is Anna literally possessed (as the American trailer would have you believe) by some pseudo-Christian demon? Is Mark possessed by the need to retrieve the Anna who once was? Or is Anna a possession, the flag that Mark and Heinrich scramble over each other to capture?
I suspect that should I revisit this movie in the future, I will have not only different answers to my many questions, but different questions as well. Between viewings #1 and #2, Possession slipped from my grasp, becoming something than I thought it was over the span of less than 24 hours. What would ten years’ worth of insight bring me, now that I know about Żuławski’s history, his inexcusable abuses—both inflicted and inflicted upon? What man will I be the next time I visit Possession? For guaranteed, I will not be watching the same movie I just watched last night.
Gloriously misleading and ridiculous US Trailer