Film and Television Features

Possession (Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)

Censored in the U.S. for years (and cut to eighty-one minutes from its original 123), Polish cult director Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) was just recently commissioned for distribution by Bleeding Light Film Group; it saw a Chicago screening in mid-May and one in Madison, WI, in early July.  An emotionally wrenching head trip and formidable film to summarize, it is perhaps only sensibly evaluated initially through an abundance of director associations.  There are echoes of Ingmar Bergman’s heated psychology of relationships, David Cronenberg’s entangling body horror, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surrealistic religious symbolism, narrative fractures of Nicolas Roeg, Roman Polanski’s cerebral terror, and most recently the depressive dread of Lars von Trier.  Audiences familiar with Antichrist (2009) will probably identify Possession with von Trier’s immensely personal drama as an equally trying, traumatic exercise about a married couple’s psychotic separation.  Possession also functions as art therapy for Żuławski with the turbulent emotions from the director’s own divorce proceedings imbuing the impassioned on-screen crisis.  When considering that degree of intimacy, the film then takes on a supernatural air as a sort of crime of passion without self-censorship, where the overflowing white hot fury of two people’s mental degradation is markedly exposed.

As the camera passes through a divided Berlin, it halts upon a soon-to-be-divided couple, Mark (Sam Neill), who is just returning from a mysterious business assignment, and wife Anna (a mesmerizingly unhinged Isabelle Adjani).  They retreat into their apartment and immediately plummet into a preexistent domestic dispute about her supposed affair with an unidentified suitor.  From the onset, it’s clear that a distinct paranoia has gripped each of them.  The antagonism is brilliantly augmented by the drifting camera; after the opening titles pass, cinematographer Bruno Nuytten captures Mark and Anna at a long shot on the street corner and steadily pans counterclockwise around them to establish the entire film’s disorienting, discomforting tone and sense of misplacement.  Their neglected young son in grade school, Bob (Michael Hogben), is unfortunately witness to the escalating psychosis of his parents but powerless to stop it.  Mark and Anna repeatedly part ways only to fall prey to this catastrophic magnetism that forces them together; early on, Mark moves out of their apartment but becomes mute and paralyzed without her, so then he reenters to make amends, using Bob as a false motive.  Later, Anna withdraws but then finds herself temporarily reunited with Mark only to admit to being “the maker of her own evil” and facing a similar inability to live independently.  Threaded through these fractured meetings is the gradual ascending promise of pain.  In a thorough review for Slant, Rumsey Taylor writes about the acts of violence “attuned to the film’s rhythm of irresolution with one act regularly subsequent to another prior… pain results in neither expression nor response.”  From these exhibitions, one can only anticipate calamity.

The concept of God also boils to the surface early on through Mark’s discovery of a postcard from Anna’s flamboyant lover/comedic martial artist Heinrich (Heinz Bennent).  Possession nonetheless withholds more direct confrontations and manifestations until it approaches midpoint when the religious references are more resoundingly aroused.  During one strained encounter between Heinrich and Mark, the camera fixates on each of them at intense close-up.  Heinrich declares, “We have nothing to fear except God.”  Mark pauses for a moment, as if reaching for the most appropriate literary quote in the recesses of his mind before finally confessing, “For me, God is a disease.”  While there are other allusions to the Almighty, the two of them do not explore this further; instead, it is displaced to a persistent cryptic dialogue between Anna and Mark.  At this point, both Heinrich and Mark’s words seem to be lifted from the director’s own renouncement as he comes to grips with the reality of a broken marriage.  Perhaps the word “God” is intended to be interchangeable with “lust.”  Humans tend to allow fervent yet fleeting passions dominate long-term judgments and planning.  Mark’s idea of lust as an all-consuming disease facilitates violent rebellious action against his wife, himself, and others.  Anna, by contrast, seems consumed by lust and continually seeks orgasmic ecstasy; however, just as in Mark’s case, it spurs violence.  Anna’s wild behavior seems to peak in one of the film’s most memorable and horrific episodes in the subway tunnel, internally brought to uncontrolled frenzy.  A gruesome hentai-like tentacle-creature is then fully revealed (courtesy of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial special effects supervisor Carlo Rambaldi), which seems to have direct correspondence to her abortive spasm in the tunnel.  An abstract manifestation of the couple’s insecurities and obsessions, the faceless, phallic, pleasure-giving creature becomes man’s (or, in this case, Mark’s) worst fear.  The monster is a manipulator and possessor – a product of overwhelming turmoil and dissatisfaction.  As the film progresses, this gruesome manifestation adds volatility and unique terror.  Its psychological dimensions seem uninhibited, and its ultimate powers remain unknown or infinite.  Anna, believing the creature to bestow spiritual transcendence, professes to harboring a divinity within her.

The overall intensity of performance in Possession is liable to leave one gripped, even if in utter bewilderment, but the film’s post-synchronized English audio track paired with the frequent yelling and thick accents may become an unintended frustration and hiccup in a film that demands its audience to actively inquire into every moment of its otherworldly horrors.  The jarring editing, which often cuts scenes prematurely in abruptly contrastive environments (including a domicile in disarray to one angled shot of Jesus statue in a crown of thorns), complements the cinematography and characters’ manic states; it never allows one to reorient or fully grasp the totality of any given scene after a single viewing.  The increasingly hyperbolic actions of the characters in the final twenty minutes also begin to follow dream logic.  Recalling the earlier notions of pleasure and pain, Patrick (of Film Walrus) mentions the ambiguity of sound in this emotional rollercoaster.  “The final shot of Mark and Anna together involves (her) emitting a cry while on top of (him) that seems to quite explicitly combine the pleasure/pain dichotomy.  This constant play with our interpretation of sound places us within the system of sexual confusion central to (the film).”  While not immediately evident, reviewing his notes evokes a work like the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991) (which, curiously enough, also shares commonalities with Polanski’s work).  In that film, the title character’s hotel room utilizes the ambivalence of sound to affect anxiety of the unconscious mind.  Possession is certainly less subtle and more visceral than Fink, but each film facilitates multiple interpretations through the indistinction between a reality and dream state distortion.  Few will fully decipher Żuławski’s film, but in this restored version, one only needs to consider its existence to believe in the unique potential of cinema.