Monday, October 4, 2010

Possession (Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)

These people are fucking insane! Okay, now that I've gotten that out of the way, we can at once proceed in a calm and irrational manner. Before I do that, the mentally sound amongst you may have noticed that I just used the word "irrational" instead of "rational," the combination of sounds that is usually paired with "and" and "calm." Well, that's because I will not let this film's demented disposition affect my longstanding dedication to verbose nonsensicality. Oh, sure, there were numerous occasions where I felt that this film's overt strangeness had the stiletto heel of one of its terribly chic shoes firmly pressed against the creaseless surface of my supple neck. But I managed to wiggle out from under its spiky grip just in the nick of time. In case you haven't figured it out yet, I was somewhat taken aback by Possession, a cryptic entanglement masquerading as a Cold War demon romance. An outlandish undertaking that causes you to use of the entirety of the eyes you use to see with (you don't merely look at it, the film devours the very essence of your soul), writer-director Andrzej Żuławski (On the Silver Globe) has managed to fashion a film that deftly mixes melodrama, art-house-style pretension, scriptural otherworldliness, exploding cars, body horror, a mysterious man with pink socks, green-eyed doppelgängers with intricately tied ponytails, ooze-based eroticism, and moments of genuine surrealism (a banana is unwittingly shared on a train).

Accustomed to viewing films that are, on the surface, entertaining but incompetently made from a technical point-of-view, I was surprised by how adept the filmmaking was throughout this "wacked out" mishegaas. For one thing, I thought the camerawork had a fluidity about it that rendered even the most straightforward scene an involving experience. The best example of this I can think of was when the male protagonist is sitting at a table and the camera pans around the room in an unbroken circular motion. However, it was the way it combined the elements I listed above (eroticism, body horror, pink socks, etc.) that went about placing Possession on the express train to that magical place where cult classics perform overzealous soixante-neuf on each other in the vicinity of a apricot dream.

An expertly made film that features extended acts of underground lunacy, tentacled apartment creatures (created by Carlo Rambaldi) that defy description, and a pair of high heel shoes that elegantly propel an attractive woman from one cockamamie state of existence to another, I couldn't believe that I watching something so deranged, yet so accomplished at the same time. It's a rare treat to find something that is able to fuse together such a diverse blend of batshit crazy and sheer skillfulness.

You'll notice that I haven't touched on the film's plot yet. Those who have seen the film will know why immediately, those who haven't, well, let's just say it's fraught with unforeseen complications. It doesn't start off that way, as the film appears to be about the slow, painful destruction of a marriage between a couple living in West Berlin in the early 1980s (the Berlin Wall is always visible and is an integral part of the film's visual makeup). And while I wouldn't exactly designate Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna's (Isabelle Adjani) romantic imbroglio to be the most healthy one ever to be depicted on film, it does bare the characteristics of a "normal" relationship at times.

They have a young son named "Bob," they fight, they argue, Anna has a lover named Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), and Mark's a tad clingy and likes to fool around Margit (Margit Carstensen), a woman who wears a cast on her left leg. You see, perfectly normal. Nevertheless, things begin to quickly unravel when Anna decides to leave Mark for no particular reason. Pretty soon they're both cutting themselves with electric knives, running through the streets covered in blood, throwing chairs, blowing up stuff and disposing of bodies.

I've been trying to figure out the exact moment when Andrzej Żuławski's Possession actually begins to unleash, what the kids nowadays like to call, "the crazy." Of course, some might say that moment arrived the second Isabelle Adjani greeted Sam Neill outside their modest West Berlin apartment complex in the film's opening scene; there was something off about the way she stood (her posture was very disquieting). Personally, I want to say it happened when the detective (Carl Duering) Mark hires to keep tabs on Anna notices something icky throbbing in the windowless bathroom of her super-secret apartment on the other side of town. But I know for a fact that wasn't the instant where the film's well-balanced veneer was washed away completely.

No, I'd say the scene where a bloodied Anna is seen storming down the street with Mark giving chase is the official kickoff. It actually occurs just as he's about to catch up with her (he's already beginning to claw at her dress) and a truck carrying crushed cars almost runs Anna over after she halfheartedly tried to jump in front of it. The ensuing mayhem causes some of the crushed cars to crash onto the sidewalk and the look on Anna's face during this specific event was the exact moment the madness was allowed to run naked in the backyard–you know, without fear of being subjected to any lopsided glances or judgmental snickering.

Technical proficiency and the precise commencement of crazy aside, it's the stellar performances given by Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani that permit Possession to soar high into the horror-melodrama stratosphere. Unafraid to appear disheveled, lovesick, and unhinged simultaneously, Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) is a distraught mess as Mark, a fidgety (no chair can contain his feeling of restlessness) buttoned-down fella whose devotion to Anna is all-consuming. Literally bouncing off the walls at times, the unassuming Kiwi is a frightening force of spurned fury. His confrontation with Anna at a coffee shop was one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have had the pleasure to witness.

While the adjectives I used to describe Sam's performance could be employed just as liberally when detailing the work of the stunning Isabelle Adjani (Nosferatu the Vampyre), especially "distraught" and "unhinged," the French actress somehow manages to maintain her sexy allure even as her marbles are slowly beginning to escape her dainty grasp. Never appearing on-screen without her trademark mane of brunette hair, an indigo dress, a pair of unruly heels, and two nylon-covered legs, Isabelle's Anna is the obsession of her male co-star and justifies his fixation at every turn with a casual panache.

Countering Anna's kooky, indigo-draped decent, Isabelle also plays a school teacher named Helen, a woman who always appears in white.

Even though the build up to her underground breakdown is a gradual progress (some mild hand wringing peppered with incoherent outbursts of a dire nature), the sight of Isabelle Adjani screaming and convulsing in that dank hallway is still a shocking sight to behold when it finally kicks into high gear. A hypnotizing avant-garde dance number, that, at times, plays out like a misguided tribute to the unseen wonders of mental illness, Isabelle's advanced lesson on how to properly thrash about in a subterranean setting will challenge your fortitude when it comes to watching dark haired actresses move spasmodically while seeping embryonic fluid.

The fact Isabelle Adjani is a French actress gives the scenes where she is called upon to briskly transport her lithe frame through an urban landscape in inappropriate footwear an added sense of authenticity. An American actress, or, say, a British one, would be constantly tripping over themselves if they attempted to move from street to street in an expedient manner while wearing high-heeled shoes. And while this clumsiness can be endearing at times, especially in romantic comedies that star Jeanne Tripplehorn, it's not welcome in demon-centric flicks that feature coitus with squids and dandified private eyes who frown upon being stabbed in the neck with the pointy ends of broken wine bottles. In this case you want the feminine steadiness that can only be attained with a French actress.

One of the perks to having a wife or girlfriend is the opportunity to try on her clothes when she is not around. But what if your wife or girlfriend is possessed by demons and wears the same indigo-coloured dress all the time? Now, this may sound a tad strange, but the former isn't the issue you should being worrying about. I mean, demons? Big deal. On the other hand, nothing can send a closeted transvestite over the edge faster than having a limited wardrobe to choose from. Of course, I'm not trying to imply that Sam Neill's character was a cross-dresser, far from it, I'm just trying to imagine the look of horror on the face of someone who was (a closeted transvestite) the moment they opened Isabelle Adjani's closet and saw nothing but a seemingly unending wall of blueish-violet.

Anyway, extremely dark and thoroughly twisted, Possession proudly waves the tattered flag for all those who enjoy movies that celebrate unconventional intercourse, revel in domestic turmoil, and aren't afraid to sport a transcendental temperament. A must-see for lovers of deeply weird cinema.



  1. I love this movie. I ordered a copy from Video Search of Miami back in the day before it was released on a legit label. Bought the legit vhs as well.

    Such an odd delight.

  2. Sounds like this movie did the same thing to you it did to me--which is to say, it hid in the closet, waited until I had switched off the lights to climb naked into my warm inviting bed, then leapt out screaming guttural demonic gibberish while bashing my brain in with a steel-plated two-by-four! There's really no other movie I can think of that's "like" this one, and it stuck with me long after the first viewing. No spoilers, but the final action we see the kid taking, though it had no blood or monsters or surreality on its surface, somehow managed to chill me to my very soul. Which I think is a testament to the movie's supreme artistry.

    BTW, legend has it that shortly after (or maybe even during, I forget) the filming of this movie, Isabelle Adjani attempted suicide! I think she's since poo-poohed this story, but watching her performance, esp. in that subway sequence, it's easy to see why the rumor had such legs. :P

  3. Possession makes me tingle in all the wrong (and oh so right) places.

  4. "a cryptic entanglement masquerading as a cold war demon romance" - well put - dig it

  5. I haven't seen this movie, but I always see it with (1981) written after it, so it won't be confused with the Paltrow/Eckhart film from about ten years back. LOL, as the kids say.

    Despite my obsession with the two Germanys (Germanies?), the Cold War, and the Berlin Wall--I lived in Deutschland a couple of years removed from reunification--I think I'll skip this one. Isabelle Adjani has always been a girl crush of mine, too, but that's not even enough.

    I have one "me" word to say to you: Mealy-mouth! (We're still behind on Jeopardy!)

  6. Kingwho?: It's definitely not a regular delight.

    The Vicar of VHS: A steel-plated two-by-four? I think I know what you mean. My mind, as I started watching this, was gearing up for yet another slice of campy Euro-cheese (Faceless, Stripe Nude/Killer, Nightmare City). But as you know, it didn't turn out that way. Damn, I get the willies just looking at the DVD box.

    I hope someone gave Isabelle Adjani a non-denominational hug after they finished filming the subway sequence.

    Cinema Du Meep: The ability to tingle in two places at once is a rare gift.

    Scott (gotankgo): Thanks for the "dig," and the "it" as well. :)

    Karim Amir: I think there have been a few "Possession" movies over the years.

    "It takes two Deutschlands to make a thing go right / It takes two Deutschlands to make it outta sight / Hit it!"

    "Girl crushes" always seem to focus on people who have an elegant or classy aura about them. And Isabelle Adjani is unquestionably both of those things.

    What movies have you dug so far this year?

    Mealy-mouth? That's so mid-September, yo. ;)

  7. Indigo is a very cool colo(u)r, by the way. And the pic with the turtleneck-like wrapping on Adjani's neck is awesome.

    Just watched the trailer. I love those 80's trailer voiceovers.

    Have you seen the list of the Top 100 Canadian Singles?
    Ron Sexsmith made the list! At 98!

    Movies this year have been, well, kind of sucky. :/ Wasn't crazy about the Facebook movie. The highlight has definitely been Inception.

  8. The wrapping is actually a makeshift bandage that Sam Neill puts on her neck after the electric knife incident.

    Yeah, the list was printed in Saturday's Star.

    No Strange Advance! No Platinum Blonde! No Skinny Puppy! No Jolly Tambourine Man! I mean, what the fuck, man? ;)

    At first, I was a tad confused by the inclusion of Steppenwolf. But apparently they got their start in Toronto. Quirky fun-fact: Their singer, John Kay (Joachim Fritz Krauledat), was born in East Prussia.

    I've seen dick and not a lot of all this year.

    Check out, if you have the means, Diane Lane's appearance on Wednesday night's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Roots play "The Professionals" from Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains as she is introduced. The look on Diane's face when she realizes what they're playing is awesome.

  9. East Prussia? No way!
    I was steamed by the exclusion of NeoA4.
    dissent: "Gordon Lightfoot is Canadian??" Me: hahhahhahah.
    We have that Fallon with Diane Lane on our DVR queue (along with all the Jeopardys!). Thanks for the heads up.

  10. Is Gordon Lightfoot Canadian?!? Does Ernest Borgnine shit in the woods?

    On a more positive note, they did include "Nova Heart" by Spoons.

    A Serbian Film is coming to town on the 21st. I'm afraid. ;)

  11. I'm a huge fan of Zulawski. I've seen all of his films except for his version of Boris Godounov. You need to see Chamanka aka Szamanka aka Shaman, which is almost like a "Last Tango in Paris-esque" precursor to the relationship in Possession. It's crazy and awesome and crazy awesome and sexy as balls.

    Yes, it DOES have awesome crazy balls. I'm glad you asked.

  12. Yums, go see A Serbian Film...and let us know how many walkouts there are. You should also check out the NSFW red band trailer.

    Ah, jeez...I adore Possesion. It gave me everything I look for in a film...and more!

    That scene in the subway where Ms. Adjani goes absolutely bonkers for three full minutes instantly became one of the all-time great viewing experiences of all my years of watching movies.

    Talk about an actress devoted to her craft!

  13. Thomas Duke: Szamanka, eh? 1996?!? Weird, I figured it'd be a gritty flick from the 1970s. Anyway, I guess Last Tango in Paris-esque is a helluva lot better than Last Tango in Cheektowaga-esque.

    According to Wikipedia: "The soundtrack is an electronic score..." Interesting. I'll add it to my list.

    Someone's a little awesome ball crazy. :D

    Russ: Hey, Russ. Go see A Serbian Film? But I have such a delicate sensibility. ;)

    I'd be surprised if there would be any walkouts. After all, this is the crowd who usually laugh in the face at suffering). But then again, the only way to find out is to go see the freaking movie.

    Was it really three minutes? Damn. Even though it felt like an eternity, I had no idea it was actually that long.

  14. Wait, am I "awesome ball crazy"? I'm not sure if that's an insult or not. "Crazy for awesome balls?" I do like those Madball things. That makes sense.

    Forget about any last tangos in Cheektowaga. Hell, they don't even get around to FIRST tangos down there. I did enjoy Last Tango in Saskatchewan though. It mostly involves a hot chick masterbating while staring at a confused moose. Not every porno needs a cock (the moose may have had one, but that clearly doesn't count).

  15. I'm as confused as a 37 year-old woman all alone at a Tori Amos concert.

    I'd rent Last Tango in Saskatchewan. And its sequel: The Regina Monologues.

    If I were to make "First Tango in Cheektowaga," I'd open with a shot of Emily Mortimer aggressively licking Wendie Malick's pussy. Where it would go from there is anyone's guess.

  16. Okay YY. Just for shits and giggles, I''m sending you my Amazon review for this movie. I t may be the only piece of my writing I feel confident showing you; as I think you're the broken bees knees to the crotch of B-movie reviewers.

    There's Much More Going One Here Than You Think, April 21, 2005

    Yeah, Possession. The First time I saw this film I was catatonic by the end. Three friends and I talked about it so much we got 4 new friends to watch it with us again. We continued marveling over it and watched it yet again on the third night (ten people this time). Why? Because this isn't really a horror film. Yeah, there's a "monster", but only in America would this get relegated to the "Horror" genre. Because here, we usually make films to fit in a box, follow a formula or entertain; whereas this one seems to be about catharsis for the director.

    Several years ago there was an amazing fan site to this man's work (which doesn't seem to exist anymore) that went into infinite detail about his films and personal life. Suffice to say, there's much more going on here than you think.

    During 1970's and 80's Poland, all films were approved by the Polish film commission and Zulawski's second film "Diabel" (1975) was banned. Made in Polish, it was essentially cut off from it's only possible audience. He took a trip to France, made his 3rd film and returned to his homeland to do the 4th. After two years work the authorities would not allow him to finish it. Since then he has lived and created successfully in France.

    "Possession" is the first film he made immediately following the second incident in Poland; just as his marriage was dissolving, and is better described as 3 films in 1. The first part is a drama centered around a couple who's marriage is falling apart. As the discord escalates, it becomes a horror film with some scenes potentially taking place only in the psyche of the wife. The finale is an action film that drives the frenzied pace even higher through chase sequences.

    Other confusions seem to stem from many lines of dialog (especially in exchanges between Hans and Sam Neil) that may be interpreted as critique of Zulawski's treatment by the government of Poland. Consequently some conversations leave viewers perplexed, as characters words don't appear to have any bearing on the scene at hand. The mysterious "agents" that pop up from time to time, simply create the social context the director must've felt as a persecuted artist. And as for the doppelgangers... I like to think they are the plastic versions of each character that the government or society's values would have them become.

    In many ways this film is an examination of the internal landscape of Zulawski at that moment; divorced from his wife and exiled by his beloved homeland. The high drama of these characters has the actors screamingly portraying every pent-up emotion Zulawski felt about his marriage, and wasn't allowed to say to his fellow countrymen about their homeland. I love this film. I love every gut wrenching, hysterical, chaotic minute of it. Viva Zulawski!

  17. Reading your amazing-as-always review and these comments has me drooling. I have this to watch. Maybe tonight.

    p.s. I've spent most of my adult life obsessively watching experimentally Japanese films. Lots of people running around decaying cities screaming while bleeding. Haven't seen many Europeans run around screaming and bleeding in an urban environment.

  18. I swear, I get queasy just thinking about Adjani's freak-out down in that tunnel. I seriously thought she was going to crack her skull open or something.