Few films defy categorisation in quite the way that Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession does, a matter not helped by its opposing artistic and cult credentials. The only film to have earned both a Best Actress award at Cannes and a place on the Video Nasties list during the 1984 furore, it’s a film ripe for re-appraisal now that it is finally available on UK DVD courtesy of Second Sight, at last back in its original cut after being decimated to play to the strengths of Carlos Rambaldi’s creature design as some kind of metaphysical monster movie. I’ve never seen the US cut of the film, this DVD release being my first (swiftly followed by second and third) viewing, but its unimaginable how the picture could play in any truncated form, particularly with an astonishing 45 minutes missing, as in its complete state it remains a challenge both narratively and thematically that still leaves many an open question even after a third viewing.
“What can I say? I’m at war against women. They have no foresight, there is nothing about them that’s stable, there is nothing to trust. They’re dangerous.”
Perhaps the most gut-wrenching portrait of a marriage in its final throes ever committed to film, it’s an often agonisingly uncomfortable watch, unashamedly histrionic throughout but executed with such deranged commitment from all concerned that one can only nervously applaud its gusto and audaciously thrown stylistic punches as the two leads strip themselves down emotionally to reveal pulsing sinews of uncensored torment and a literal physicalisation of psychosis throbbing below the surface. It’s a film rich in symbolism, both political and religious that plays with motifs of doubles and division, the concrete Wall cuts through the West Berlin setting and both characters craft doppelgangers in the image of their partners, a supernatural/alien/Stepford-perfect incarnation in Mark’s case and a tentacled sexual partner which feeds on humans in the case of Anna, one which ultimately takes on the form of her husband. Eastern concepts of Yin and Yang are proposed alongside Anna’s archaic story of the twin sisters Faith and Chance, and the nature of Good and Evil are presented as simply questions of perspective.
“There is no God. God is merely a reflection of evil”
The first half of the film is arguably the stronger. We meet Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) seemingly past the point of hope for their marriage. Reduced to an alternately sadistic and masochistic battle of wills over their individual needs and desires, we’re thrown into ferocious arguments, often revolving around the care of their son Bob that sharply veer into violence and abuse. The language from the start has a certain heightened theatricality (one could even say Pinteresque if feeling generous) matched by both the performances and the cinematography, Zulawski’s camera never resting for a moment, constantly engaged in a swirling, swooping dance around the antagonists, often crashing in and yanking away to delirious effect. The first fight reaches its peak a mere ten minutes into the film, as Mark throws chairs into the air in the café where they meet, a climax of emotional intensity that sustains itself for the rest of the picture. It’s a draining experience, not so much a series of climactic moments punctuated with space in between, but one continual climax of anguish and emotional punishment that puts the viewer through the wringer along with the couple. Perhaps that’s what makes the pivotal scene (told in flashback) during which Anna miscarries the twin of her Freudian id-monster in an underground subway so disturbing. A bravura sequence from Adjani, you’re truly left wondering where we can possibly go after the electric breadknives and meat-grinders used to full effect previously, but as she declares herself possessed by God, Zulawski tops the lot, and it ain’t pretty.
“What I miscarried there was Sister Faith and what is left is Sister Chance. So I had to take care of my Faith, to protect it.”
In the supplementary documentary included on the disc, Zulawski speaks of the dark period surrounding his own divorce that led to the production of the film, it’s a similar story told by both David Cronenberg and Lars Von Trier with whose respective films The Brood (1979) and Antichrist (2009) Possession shares much thematic ground. It’s an unforgiving film of astonishing rage and hopelessness as obsessed with death, decay and disintegration as it is with spirituality and the nature of love in all its brutality. The ending may be as ambiguous as it is ultimately nihilistic but this is also a bravura piece of cinema featuring two astonishingly committed performances in a film that feels like that rare thing nowadays, a true one-off.
Possession – 1981 – Poland – 119 mins – Dir : Andrzej Zulawski
Possession is available to buy from Second Sight DVD here