Director: Andrzej Żuławski
Screenplay: Andrzej Żuławski and Frederic Tuten
Cast: Isabelle Adjani (as Anna/Helen); Sam Neill (as Mark); Margit Carstensen (as Margit Gluckmeister); Heinz Bennent (as Heinrich); Johanna Hofer (as Heinrich's mother)
Synopsis: Returning home from an espionage mission, Mark (Neill) discovers that his wife Anna (Adjani) has had an affair. Their marriage starts to break down immediately after, but rather than with her Zen-like, New Age lover Heinrich (Bennent), Anna is occupying an isolated room with an entity scrapped from the bowels of the subconscious. In a narrative that includes spies, body horror and internal turmoil set in the closed-in walls of West Germany, Żuławski's response to Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage (1973) is as overwhelming experience.
From the first ten minutes onwards, this is proven as Possession in tone is drastically different from many a film. A heightened intensity is here that is far and away more pronounced that many other films I've covered on the blog. The acting is made to be at a vastly intense level than usually seen, as is common in other Żuławski films, not necessarily theatrical but feral, basic emotions taken to their fullest. A scream is prolonged and stretched longer, as is a state of shock made to look catatonic. Adjani's performance is legendary, spasming and wailing when she's not struggling to keep herself together, culminating in a freak-out in a subway corridor where she is almost possessed demonically, but Sam Neill is just as startling. A man more well known for films like Jurassic Park (1993), his character soon into the film, even before Adjani's Anna, is losing his sanity from the prospect of losing his wife to another person. The actual separation is equivalent to a drug withdrawal, twisting in the foetal position on a sweat drenched and bared bed, and how Neill used a rocking chair onscreen is as if he's able to defy gravity, rocking with the intensity in his eyes of someone lost in another reality. The performances in general from all the actors are just as intense, and the leads are exceptional, but this film does as well prove that any actor can give a truly full bodied performance, willing to go the extra distance for the sake of the intensity required. You see such a drastic difference in something like this in contrast to a lesser film like Neill's Sirens (1993) from what was required from him.
Experiencing Possession is an entirely different prospect than a lot of films. In the cusp of many genres and in an entirely new one of its own, many parts of the film tip over into the ludicrous when it's not being intentionally humorous in a blackened way, but there's always something to crawl under your skin to counteract this. Written during a severe breakup with his first wife, Żuławski's film feels too focused, too real at points for it to trivialise its marital breakup narrative when Anna's lover turns out to be a humanoid squid monster designed by Carlo Rambaldi. The film is too dynamic, too rich in details for that sentence to reveal too much, the pain depicted too real and said monstrosity taking the form of a repressed emotion in all its slimy, visceral birthing.
Adding to all of this is a prowling, continually moving camera that will yet stay still and focus on an important emotional moment long enough for it to be fully felt. Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten should be as praised for what he does in his role, bringing this elastic camera work that follows the performers onscreen with the same level of intensity as they are depict in front of it. The music by Andrzej Korzyński is just as evocative, providing a similar intensity with each electric wash of the synthesizer heard, never overbearing or drowning out the actors' performances but adding to them.
Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Mindbender/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): High
Żuławski's directorial style is a unique one. You can distinctly tell when you're watching a Żuławski film. The few that I have seen can be counted on a full, single hand with one additional finger - in order of preference On The Silver Globe (1988), this, The Third Party of the Night (1971), Diabel (1972) and Szamanka (1996) - and all of them are a perpetual machine of heightened energy that can exhaust a viewer unprepared for them. It's not all shrieking or extremity, as Possession is built as much from moments of calm or immense sadness - Mark coming out of a three week binge of separation anxiety only to realise their son Bob's been left all alone in the family home - the moments of trauma with an electric carving knife or the parents hitting each other of set by tragedy of a relationship breaking to pieces as painfully as possible. The dialogue is poetic, at times difficult to catch from how fast its spoken or how the cracking voices distort it, the unnatural body horror an extension of these emotions. As in David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979), it literalises the ideal of horror cinema being a projection of human anxieties and emotions.
The stranger parts of the film, as in other Żuławski films, add to the maddened tone, at times as if the film is continually hurtling alone to the point it'll collapse like Mark on a motorbike at one point. But somehow it manages to sustain itself at full speed to the end credits. Men in shocking pink socks vie with an unexpected car crash, and there's of course Bennent's performance as Heinrich which is strange in itself, a cat suit wearing Zen lover still living with his mother, in the pains of delirium at points with as much intensity as Mark and Anna, even more so at points until he goes blind in one moment. Trying to locate his soul later on is far from a pointless tangent into the spiritual but becomes real possibility, about to wander in on Mark considering the tone of the film as it stands.
The film already leaps into the metaphysical beyond the tentacled possession with Anna's double, a nursery school teacher Helen also played by Adjani. She is meant to be the saint to Anna's whore, white dress with pigtails and a concern for Bob, but on this viewing there's something far too deep and pulsating in the green contact lenses Adjani has to wear, something too white about the dress and her flirtations with Mark are far more obvious the more you watch the film, a greater depth and mudding of that stereotype. That doesn't even add what the squid entity turns out to be, complicating things further, and when the film ends on an apocalyptic note, the world effected by this relationship, it's the only appropriate ending for a work like it.
Possession's a lot to take, still too much for me to fully digest. So much is utterly absurd, some of it even silly, but most of it is still startling to watch. The performances linger in my mind and the tone is so delirious that to use the word "delirious" seems mistaken, instead as if the emotions depicted have been allowed to be felt through every pore of the actors' bodies. Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage, which I've seen the theatrical cut of only, is an intense film and there's actually little difference between the two films despite Żuławski responding with what he felt was a more accurate depiction of the subject matter. The acting in Bergman's film is just as unrelenting but its depicted entirely from a realism. Żulawksi's film includes the unreal and the subconscious, allowing it to walk out into reality. Hence not only the body horror but also the almost hypnotised acting styles from the cast. Experiencing Possession feels like being hypnotised yourself, thrown through one emotional current another without respite. Why would anyone want to watch this reading that sentence? When for someone, cinema is never just a comfort food. It prickles emotions barely touched. The inappropriately silly moments, the disturbing moments, the genre blurring and the unpredictability, all of it's a standard bearer for a cinema of the abstract if there was any.