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“And then I read private life is a stage, only I’m playing many parts, smaller than me”.
These words uttered by Anna (played by French icon Isabelle Adjani) from Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession provide us a rare and brief glimpse into the otherworldly psyche of our lead protagonist as she descends into absolute madness over a gripping 2 hours and 4 minutes. The madness of heartbreak is a tricky narrative to capture on screen, as those who have been through divorce or a devastating break up are wise enough to know that one feels such an experience, rather than watching it pass as a bystander. The same could be said for witnessing Zulawski’s infamous piece of cinema.
I’ve spent the better part of 2022 researching the film’s rich history and diving into the deep cave that was Zulawski’s mind to prepare for a book I am writing as well as the podcast mini series (Faith & Chance, A Deep Dive into Possession) I’ve developed alongside it. Immersing myself neck deep into such territory has been emotionally taxing, thrilling and, at times, overwhelming. I am often asked by first time audiences on “how to approach” the film going in. I provide the same advice to each curious movie goer with something like this: “If you are going into this film expecting a straightforward, linear narrative with a satisfying ending wrapped up with a bow, you will be terribly disappointed and confused. Instead, FEEL the film: allow the experience to wash over you, body and mind. Just let it wash over you. That is the best advice I can offer and I still stand by it, despite countless screenings of the film under my belt at this point.
Possession is a prime example of when all the elements in a production come together in perfect harmony. From the director’s vision to the script and the actors cast in these roles, the words leap right off the paper they’re written on. There’s also the dizzying and dancing quality of the camerawork from cinematographer (DP) Bruno Nuytten and operator Andrzej J. Jaroszewicz. And then there’s the labyrinthine color palette as well as the powerful and emotive musicality of composer Andrzej Korzyński’s score. All of these technical elements link together like a beautiful dance, as though they collectively have bottled the emotional and psychological headspace of what such an internal breakdown feels like.
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s an experience to be felt rather than fully understood. The film exquisitely succeeds in – to steal a phrase from German film critic Siegfried Kracauer – “externalizing the fermentation of inner life and turmoil”. Possession is the physical manifestation of psychological stress, the cinematic representation of extreme emotional states, presented via celluloid. It also serves as a metaphor for depression, succeeding wholeheartedly in capturing what it’s like to feel bad. There are several thematic ideas within the film that have prompted countless commentary, film analysis and theories to follow behind these themes, but the lack of a definitive answer adds to the disturbing nature of Anna’s descent into madness.
In addition to the madness depicted on screen, Zulawski explores duality with doppelgangers, internal struggle and horror from within (later described as body horror, before the term was officially coined and given its own subgenre), political intrigue and the act of transforming deeply personal experiences from his own life to the screen. In an interview with Film Comment magazine from 2012, Zulawski says: “Possession was born of a totally private experience. After making That Most Important Thing 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 Mark (Sam Neill’s character) in Possession sees when he opens the door to his flat, which is an abandoned, messy child in an empty flat and a woman who is doing something, somewhere else.”
The movie follows expatriates Anna and Mark – a married couple with a young son, Bob – and is set in 1980s Cold War-era West Berlin. We are led to believe Mark is a spy, returning home from being on a long assignment, while in the meantime, Anna has found herself in the arms of another man, the enigmatic Heinrich. The pain and lack of healthy communication between the couple is palpable from their first interaction upon his return from a long work assignment. The moody, blue-ish color tones are established from shot one and we feel a sense of cold, both environmentally and internally. The pair dance through screaming matches in a public cafe to brutal and violent domestic fights behind closed doors at home. As they disintegrate within their fractured and deeply codependent relationship, the descent into madness progresses rapidly, as Mark and Anna desperately try to claw themselves out of this self-imposed abyss.
It is worth mentioning that 1980 West Berlin serves as a prominent fourth main character in the film. One cannot ignore the obvious depiction of the then-existent Berlin Wall, showcased in the opening credits and constantly throughout the film. It also serves as a divisive metaphor for both Mark and Anna’s separation from one another. The divisiveness of East and West, a division between progressivism and communism. Closeups captured by the camera show us surveillance is prevalent. Real Soviet armed guards with binoculars and guns peer back at us through the camera lens from their watchtowers.
Zulawski had this to say on the environment: “When I wrote the script, I thought that I really would love to make the film the closest possible to this part of the world in which the film was invented, which was the communist part of the world. And Berlin seemed really the right place, being surrounded by this wall and this communist empire all around. To have this entrenched psychology of people surrounded by evil and finally evil worms up into their universe…”
The film’s presentation of its “body” horror elements is a major reason it works so remarkably well. Possession contains multiple sources of horror, each adding a layered part to the whole onion and helping the film make its firm statement. The movie contains blatant horror elements like blood, violence, and a creature, but it uses these to convey a deeper sense of horror and unease than one finds in a surface-level slasher film. The marital troubles between Mark and Anna touch on a very real fear for many adults. The violence and heightened, theatrical acting involved are exaggerated to an absurd degree, but such situations can and all too often do turn violent in the real world scenario, lending a troubling undercurrent of realism to a mostly surreal film. The deep blue and red tones spark a sense of dread and a feeling of coldness. Thus the unease the viewer experiences when watching Possession stems not only from the grotesque special effects (created by Oscar winning E.T., Alien & King Kong master artist Carlo Rombaldi) but also from its strange connection to reality.
Zulawski conveys this with visceral imagery that penetrates the viewer’s consciousness in a way that differs from more realistic drama films. This unusual presentation of story moves the viewer in ways a non-horror film simply cannot. The movie possesses an intense unpredictability despite its meticulously choreographed aesthetic and turns it into a macabre dance piece.
Having collaborated with the Polish auteur since his earlier Devil, camera operator Jaroszewicz and DP Bruno Nuytten talked about how much planning and choreography actually went into using wide angle lenses on the restored and released 4K Director’s Cut DVD: a lot, since it distorts space in such a way that it renders everything in the frame significant. Every camera movement is intentional and important to conveying Zulawski’s story, which is why we, the audience, feel it on a visceral level. The camera circles, spins, shakes, swoops, and runs amuck, as if Nuytten was on acid. Everything in front of the camera is prominent and seen as important. The dance of the camera, much like the actors, never stops moving.
The camerawork operated by Andrzej J. Jaroszewicz under D.P. Bruno Nuytten is deeply intimate. Nuytten functions like a human steadicam, which informs Jaroszewicz’s movements and actions. Jaroszewicz reflected: “An additional difficulty, especially for Andrzej [Zulawski], was that the set-up of the wide-angle frames meant total organization. It’s very simple to shoot with a 100mm or a 180mm lens, because with that you just shoot an eye, for instance, or a hand, anything. A coat pocket, a glass, or smoke. That is simple, and it’s easy to build some sort of atmosphere from it. But, when shooting with wide-angle lenses, within the frame you need to gather all the elements that are important and to eliminate all those which are not important, because the wide-angle lens renders everything important.” The director, DP and camera operator were in total alignment with the idea that the camera should tell the bulk of the story. Together, they carefully manifested that idea through camera motion, blocking with the actors, choreography and set design.
The intimacy and vulnerability captured with the extreme closeups of the actors’ faces, especially Adjani’s Anna, has real life footing. At the time of filming, lead actress Adjani and cinematographer Nuytten had been in a romantic relationship for years, bearing a child a year before they shot Possession together (they would go on to collaborate a few more times, most notably on Nuytten’s feature film debut Camille Claudel, which won an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and another Cesar Best Actress award for Adjani in 1988.) Adjani opened up to Vanity Fair France in December 2021 offering: “We loved each other passionately, we threw ourselves body and soul into bringing our work to life. We pledged to love us and invest ourselves in this film which had a destiny as magnificent as it was devastating.” Adjani also gave great praise to her former lover saying: “Bruno Nuytten is an artist, he lives inside this word, as this word lives inside him. With his painter’s eye, he achieves an incredible experimental journey, a discreet work that exhibits still images all borrowed from reality, and of which he specifies, unconscious irony, that none is staged…“.
The element of duality is prominent to the film’s themes as well. After Anna leaves Mark, he becomes the sole caretaker for young Bob and meets his son’s teacher Helen, a saintly woman dressed in all white (also played by Adjani). She has lighter hair, a gentle spirit, and electric green eyes, but is a dead ringer for Anna. Helen is everything Mark longs for in Anna. Meanwhile, Anna’s pursues other romantic partners in Heinrich and, eventually, willfully cultivates the creature who turns into Mark’s doppelganger: perhaps the two have more in common than they realize? Yet the doppelgängers aren’t real partners, they are mere extensions of the will of the two characters.
Speaking of this creature, Oscar-winner Rombaldi was tapped to create the look for it and Zulawski drew inspiration from the Golem of Prague, obsessively pulling magazine photos to articulate how he visualized the monster to be. A phallic-like being, the tentacled creature morphs and changes rapidly with each glimpse we are allotted. According to producer Marie-Laure Reyre, Rombaldi delivered various versions of the creature model to Berlin inside wooden coffins. Given the emotional assault this film unleashes onto its viewer, this move seems fitting.
The careful casting here is absolutely brilliant. Adjani at the time had been blacklisted in her native France, bearing the brunt of an unfair reputation for being “difficult and a hysteric” on set. Sam Neill was a relatively unknown young actor hailing from New Zealand, having only acted in two films prior: 1977’s Sleeping Dogs and 1980’s The Omen 3, portraying Damien, the grown spawn of Satan. Heinz Bennett wonderfully cast as the hilarious Heinrich was a trained thespian of the prestigious Schiller Theater in Germany. The intentional theatricality of the acting stems from the “Theater of the Absurd” and “Pinteresque” concepts. Harold Pinter was a prominent playwright in the 20th Century and his definitive style became known as Pinteresque in post WW2 Europe. By definition, pinteresque refers to certain elements of the famed playwright’s work. It has made its way to the Oxford dictionary, characterized by implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, heightened theatrics and irony, apparent triviality, and long pauses. A Chicago Tribune critic remarked that: “It implies a drama of mystery, enigma, ritualistic behavior and (above all) menace, all taking place in a seemingly innocuous and immediately recognizable setting.”
Upon release, Possession was somewhat of a failure at the box office. It opened at the most prestigious arts festival in the world, Le Festival de Cannes, in 1982, securing a Best Actress award for Isabelle Adjani, and appeared in Competition for the Palme d’Or grand prize. Upon theatrical release elsewhere though, it became one of the original 72 genre flicks on the conservative British censors’ list of “Video Nasties”. This resulted in an immediate ban in the U.K. and an extremely watered down, nonsensical 80-minute version released in the U.S., thus hindering the film’s overall release worldwide. These actions were contributing factors to its hard-to-find, cult-like status some 40 years later, and the movie has experienced a huge resurgence in popularity and interest in the last decade when Metrograph finally gave the film a proper release in the form of a Director’s Cut, 4K DVD box set release. Critics began to blog its praises, showering it in accolades and hailing it as a long lost masterpiece of horror cinema.
Film Writer Kier la Janisse’s monumental semi-autobiographical film analysis book House of Psychotic Women, opens with an ode to Possession. Sam Neill, now one of the most famous and beloved actors of our time with a filmography that lists Jurassic Park, Dead Calm, The Piano and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, has stated that – of the many remarkable films from his 40+ year career – Possession remains his personal favorite.
I think so much of the cinephile’s drive stems from the constant chase of those “firsts”, those moments that we never get back. Constantly finding ways to feel new experiences is so exciting, and I consider it an invaluable treasure when we stumble onto a film and, much like a painting, we discover something new about ourselves or the world we live in each time we see it. I believe that is a testament to great art. Our relationship with this said art changes over time too. As we grow and navigate life, our lenses shift and evolve, different feelings resonate with us at different points in our journey. For me, Possession is a gift of cinema that keeps on giving; ever evolving, constantly shifting and offering new ideas, always open to interpretation. I remember the first time I watched it on VHS (and I will never experience that high again) as a teenager, how different my relationship was to the film then. I compare that to my perspective today, and they are completely different experiences.
When The Frida opened a one-week theater run of Possession, I had the pleasure of sitting alongside a group of Gen-Z’ers, who had never seen the film before. I sensed the physical response one of them had watching the visceral, meat-carving knife scene. I could feel my own feet excitedly dancing beneath my seat as I anticipated the infamous subway scene and could barely contain my anticipation for how this row of young, fresh-minded viewers next to me would respond to witnessing this relentless and horrifying 3-minute scene. It felt like I was seeing the film with a fresh perspective for the first time, through their eyes.
For the last forty years this is a film that has provoked extreme, polarizing reactions of adoration or disgust. It is a work of art running entirely on pure, emotional petrol. A snapshot of a moment in time in our history and an expression of heartbreak and madness very few directors have been able to fearlessly articulate with such emotional accuracy and fervor on the big screen as Andrej Zulawski achieved with Possession.
Screenwriter Frederic Tuten sums it up so eloquently: “Andrzej (Zulawski) didn’t make films to make a film. He believed in it. He believed in the mission of art. It sounds fancy, and he never would have used those words, but to make a film was to leave something of importance in this rather dreary, sad world. I believe it, he believed it, I believe it too today.”
A film so elusive that it’s impossible to stream, with a textured ending that reaches a crescendo both visually and sonically; which are ultimately, all good things because Possession is a film best experienced inside the walls of a darkened theater.
Possession screens at The Frida Cinema through Thursday, September 1st.
Wednesday, Aug 31 – 9pm
Thursday, Sep 1 – 9pm