Gabriel Hart reviews Possession, starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil, Directed by Andrzej Zulawski 1981
Nothing prepares you for it.
It crashes in with inherent black magic. Beyond the emotional toll, there is the paralyzing shock bleeding into pangs of nausea, initiating an extended physical effect on you, its plaything. Reality warps into a frightening, paranoid funhouse mirror where it proves difficult to trust even your longest-standing loved ones, as things are no longer what they seem. But its real insidiousness unveils itself here: where if it befalls you in multiple spells, every time will feel like the first time all over again.
Conversely, nothing prepared me for the first time I saw what is now my favorite film, Possession by Polish renegade auteur Andrzej Zulawski. I was neck-deep in the throes of being cheated on by a woman a decade my junior, and lucky me – I got to be her lesson in the consequences of lying, of manipulating reality. She got me – a clear shot of poison into my open heart now barely ticking, still wounded as I walked into that theater, for what I thought was going to be a mere distraction from the heartache.
Like divine intervention, the film also got me – saving my sanity by its pulsing, cathartic, otherworldly reminder that things can always be worse.
The 1981 film opens as a young Sam Neill (Event Horizon, Jurassic Park, In the Mouth of Madness) plays Mark, who is being left by his wife Anna, played by exalted French star Isabelle Adjani (The Tenant, Subway, Nosferatu). He is devastated, unable to see it coming yet he searches for some last-ditch attempt to repair the fray, further propelled by the well-being of their adorably oblivious five-year-old son, Bob. Nothing seems out of the ordinary yet, other than the white-knuckling futurist-Hitchcock theme music (composed by Andrzej Korzynski, who also did Zulawski’s The Devil) that suggests this is no ordinary drama.
Zulawski tempered an acting technique – The Shamanistic Method, where he would direct his actors into hysterical frenzies. These violent yet intuitive whirls of abandon often take over the narrative, increasing the emotional volume in scenes where mere words may otherwise fail. For those unfamiliar with Zulawski’s work, it’s easy to contextualize when we refer to the boisterous acting style of Nicholas Cage, who has recently called it “Nouveau-Shamanic,” – no doubt an updated nod to Zulawski.
In Possession, we initially witness this after the first ten minutes, when Mark and Anna meet in a cafe to discuss splitting their assets and custody of the child. Their talk goes from brittle to deflective to cruel, re-animating Mark out of his bewildered catatonia to chase her out of the cafe, flailing wildly as he overturns every chair and table in the joint.
The film steadily continues this asphyxiating dread of severance as Mark develops junkie-esque withdrawal symptoms from Anna – cold-sweats, writhing in bed, climbing up the walls of a hotel where he loses all track of time.
In the duration, she disappears without a trace.
With Bob allegedly in her custody, he discovers he has been left all alone in their apartment for three weeks, subsisting on what looks like the dregs of frosting and cereal.
A stray love note he wasn’t supposed to see leads his search to Heimlich (Heinz Bennet), a new-age yuppie art collector who you immediately want to punch. Instead, Heimlich wipes the floor with our hero Mark, humbling his righteous indignation after showing up at Heimlich’s door for a botched confrontation. When the dustup settles, Heimlich divulges that he was sleeping with Anna, but he also hasn’t seen her in days – he figured she was back with Mark.
Zulawski was forced to direct his most beloved film in turn-of-decade Berlin after too many clashes with Polish authorities during his daring sci-fi epic On The Silver Globe. The result is a “city-out-of-time,” often using the Wall as backdrop. The monument’s armed soldiers further elaborate the story’s climate of fear, creating a haunting vacancy in an otherwise notorious metropolis as the film shifts shape and perceptions.
Mark becomes obsessed by the hunt for his estranged wife while attempting some semblance of normalcy for little Bob. At a deceiving moment of anti-reveal, he mistakes his son’s elementary school teacher for Anna (naturally, as the film’s mind-fuck goes pre-Lynchian with Adjani also playing the teacher, only slightly altered with an auburn wig and colored contacts). This is all presented very matter of factly as we are pulling our own hair out, internally howling along to the unraveling mystery.
We are further teased when Mark finally finds Anna, though it is anti-climactic because she is not as she left him. She is glazed, easily-enraged, her mind clearly elsewhere. We are taunted with brief pushes and pulls of reconciliation, made further impossible by their assured unraveling that bottlenecks in the kitchen, where Mark’s pain becomes masochistic. Half-committed as a cry for help, he cuts his arm with an electric knife, before she takes it one step further, attempting to behead herself.
Then, the floor drops from under us.
We now find ourselves trapped in the film as Anna breaks the Fourth Wall to deliver a mounting soliloquy about two “sisters” named Faith and Chance, an open-ended symbolic strategy to make sense out of the chaos, should we want to take it. She stares not just directly into the camera lens, but into our souls like a dream we can’t look away from. This stream of consciousness psychobabble toggles between another scene where Anna is found not so much teaching, but abusing her ballet students to agonizing tears.
Without giving too much away, it is soon revealed where Anna has been, and not who – but what – she has been sleeping with. It is safe to say it is something Mark can no longer compare himself to, and fans of Lovecraftian-horror shall surely rejoice.
But the film’s piece de resistance (indeed, the French have even coined the term “Zulawskienne” for films that are over the top) is the irrefutable Subway Scene with Anna. Whatever “special effect” her object of affection is having on her, it is wildly displayed as she walks through an empty train terminal and gives the Shamanistic Method its most infamous calling card. She screams, writhes, twists, head-bangs, gurgles in tongues, contorting her body into ways it simply should not go (testimony to Adjani’s brave agility rather than, say, any kind of painstaking technical illusions used on Linda Blair in The Exorcist), before bleeding a gushing cherry-vanilla discharge from every orifice. The scene is both horrific and strangely satisfying, as it seems natural to wish one minute of our every day to purge what ails us in such a visceral way. But for better or worse, Zulawski’s actors freak out so we don’t have to.
Furthermore, I testify: Whether or not you are prone to lose your mind, one hasn’t fully lived until they have witnessed these vital three minutes of cinematic mastery and human aerobic achievement where Adjani scratches our itch in a most profound way.
The performance won Adjani Best Actress at that year’s Cannes festival – even after it was rumored they found her in the bathroom, attempting suicide after her initial viewing of the scene. Zulawski opines her transgressive post-screening stunt as “Very French” in the DVD commentary, though one can’t deny the complex emotional effect in may have had on the actress.
The plot shatters further when a private investigator appears. Now he, Mark, Heimlich, Anna’s friend Margie, and the viewer’s own projected sympathy/empathy is searching for closure with Anna, whose relations with the creature have graduated into a murderous, Little Shop of Horrors-like tag team, with sex and death as both currency and fuel for their respective insatiable appetites.
But for all its phantasmagoria and interpretive gesticulating, the film concludes with a hard-boiled climax – a shootout, of all things, between Mark and Anna at the top of a twisted flight of spiraling stairs. It’s a perfect analogy for our brimming adrenaline and its long comedown after we witness the murder-suicide, an act of mutual mercy for the two repellently romantic opponents.
I remember leaving that arthouse theater that night with a relief I hadn’t felt in years. Zulawski had taken me to the depths of suffocation, to the near edge of breathless so I could finally breathe again. While one could see it as everything and the kitchen sink – this Noir/Sci-Fi/Horror/dramatic mash-up – the film’s true poetry lies in its actions beyond words, allowing us to heartily sigh rather than fly off our own handles. Love or hate be damned: Possession is not so much a movie you watch as it is a movie that happens to you.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR:
Gabriel Hart lives in Morongo Valley in California’s High Desert. His debut twin novel of surrealist-noir Virgins In Reverse / The Intrusion (Traveling Shoes Press) was released in 2019, with a foreword by Avant-rockabilly provocateur Tav Falco. His upcoming desert-themed speculative fiction novel Lies of Heaven will be published by Space Cowboy in late 2020. Other works have appeared in Cholla Needles, Luna Arcana, Black Hare Press (Australia), Crime Poetry Weekly, and Shotgun Honey (June 2020). He is a regular contributor to Space Cowboy’s Simultaneous Times podcast, as well as L.A. Record, a Los Angeles underground music publication. Hart also taught the writing workshop for Mil-Tree, a non-profit reach out program for Vets and Active Duty Military to heal the wounds of war.
His musical alter-ego sees him as the ringleader of the L.A. based punk Wall of Sound group Jail Weddings, who released their third album Wilted Eden in 2019. Their previous album Meltdown: A Declaration of Unpopular Emotion (2013) was voted Best Album of The Year by L.A. Weekly, followed by Best Band of the Year in 2014.