After much arm-twisting from a close friend, I gave in and borrowed his copy of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. I didn’t really know what to expect considering I wasn’t familiar with the director and (from what I had hear) it was notoriously difficult to pigeon hole in a genre. In hindsight all I can say is I was in for wild ride and it’s one I wish I had taken a hell of a lot sooner.
Germany/France, 1981, Andrzej Zulawski
The plot sounds straightforward enough; we’re witness to the trials and tribulations of a crumbling marriage between Mark (Sam Neil) and Helene (Isabella Adjani) but those expecting a kitchen-sink drama from said plot will not only be left disappointed and a recipient of the mental equivalent of being pulled into a back alley, bitch slapped about and possibly molested to boot. Mike Leigh this is definitely not.
As the main characters mental health deteriorates so does all semblance of logic from the plot, resulting in a bewildering third act involving tentacle sex, shoot outs with the police and the end of the world as we know it; yes you read it correctly, it has to be seen to be believed. Here’s the trailer to give you a taste of its glorious depravity.
Zulawski was going through a messy divorce at the time of filming and it’s obvious he had some serious demons in his closet in need of exorcizing. The story comes from a primal and personal place resulting in the film’s strongest point; no matter how bug nuts everything escalates to, it never falls into artsy farsty indulgence. There’s a definitive purpose to the film and although it’s hard to understand you certainly end up feeling the residue of it.
In this way it’s comparable to what David Lynch is so famous for doing; creating a dream/nightmare like experience that operates on its own sense of logic. In fact, this film would make for an intriguing double bill with Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), his film delves into the trauma of becoming a husband and father while our subject examines the destructive nature at the tail end of wedlock.
But to compare Possession to anything else would be doing the film a disservice; it’s a truly unique experience that defies familiarity with other films. It also manages in part to be bewildering, intellectual, disturbing, sexy and strangely humorous. If you think I’m just pulling random big words out of a hat here, go watch it for yourself, on more than one occasion it even achieves all those adjectives all at once.
With all the haphazard chaos on screen it’s amazing that it holds together at all but it’s a case of great elements coming together, starting with the director; Zulawski emits a confident handle on style, his visceral steadicam shots charge up the high emotion when necessary and the dolly shots are coolly observational, both help push the film as it spirals further down into oblivion.
It’s also apparent he gained a tremendous amount of trust from his actors but to give him all the credit would be unfair, he’s the mad puppeteer behind the curtains certainly, but the whole thing could’ve veered off into random wankiness if it weren’t for the two gripping and brutally naked performances by Neil and particularly Adjani.
Neil a stalwart for the stoic everyman from childhood favorites of mine Jurassic Park and Dead Calm, displays here the type of bug eyed insanity more at home with Klaus Kinski or Nicolas Cage turned up to eleven. It’s testament to his performance that throughout we still manage to sympathize and even relate to his troubled husband.
Regardless the film is hijacked by Adjani anytime she’s in front of the camera, the woman displays the type of raw emotion that’s unmatched by any female performance I’ve been witness too. Adjani was an alluring symbol of European beauty at the time (hell even at her current age she’s still not bad!) and from her other work I’d seen I was aware she had a solid range but nothing compares to the dark depths she delves into here. Rumor has it she even attempted suicide after this film, unable to shake the character’s persona, if that was the case I’m truly not surprised. She sways from hysterical to broken, angelic to demonic, frightening to seductive, it’s something to behold and my hat honorably goes off to her. Below is an example of the type of insane dedication the fantastic lady committed for our viewing pleasure, enjoy!
Other elements must be quickly mentioned too; Heinz Bennet is deliciously off the wall (in fact in one dialogue scene he’s literally bouncing off walls) as the third wheel in the central love triangle. The choice of setting (80’s East Berlin) was a fantastic coup as the location reflects the crumbling nature of the marriage as well as the world. And last but not least a familiar name to most of us genre fans; Carlo Rimbaldi, displays a jaw dropping creation in the form of Adjani’s repulsive secret lover. It’s a masterwork of practical effects and makes me miss those golden days of slime and latex like you wouldn’t believe.
If there was a negative I could imagine for you fellow Mondo Exploiters it’s that the film does skirt the line closer to a demented arthouse picture instead of straight up genre fair, still I couldn’t recommend it more (except maybe to your mum). Go watch this already if you haven’t!