Short Review: Possession (1981, Zulawski)


Possession Adjani
When I think about having to articulate thoughts on Possession I get overwhelmed, which makes me want to express them to my satisfaction all the more. How to convey the experience of watching something like this? Those who have seen it and latched onto its brand of mayhem know that Possession plays for keeps. It is at its core startlingly intimate and private, like an open wound filtered through a melodramatic phantasmagorical visage. Its sustained high-pitched skittish temperament is so explosive that most films never aim to touch the kind of cataclysmic outpour which makes up all of Possession. This makes it a uniquely exhausting experience. One of those I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself-now dilemmas.

Andrzej Zulawski constantly finds ways to throw us off in this nightmare world of tentacle sex, incestual copulation, subway seizures/miscarriages/?, orifice oozing, invasive hippies, pink socks, doppelgängers, and more. Set in Cold War Berlin where everything is binary helps create a lack of sync to how the characters relate to each other. Conversations are between people experiencing completely different things. Connections are frayed. Common ground is futile. Everything feels foreign. It is about the crumbling of marriage where the start is the end and it’s just a descent into literal hell from there.

Zulawski shoots in grays, blues, whites. The template is like the picture above, alternating between sterile and grimy. It feels dire and desolate. It feels like a morgue, a wasteland. The camera is often used to show the disconnect between the characters, particularly the central couple. But then we are thrown into uncomfortably close quarters, up close and personal. Isabelle Adjani breaks the fourth wall with her piercing gaze. Zulawski cuts in so close that we often repel.

Speaking of Isabelle Adjani, only someone a little off their rocker and in acute touch with their demons could have pulled this off. What to even say about her? That’s it’s possibly the most exhausting-to-watch performance ever? She alternates between trance and unchecked hysteria. Screaming becomes a medium. Adjani uses her body and her face to contort into this being who has lost her place and her ability to share experience or communicate. She is in post-psychotic breakdown mode, unable to be in anybody else’s space and function. She is far gone from the second we meet her.

Anna and Mark get stuck in the same motions. Mark rocks his chair back and forth, he twists and turns on his bed, writhing out of time. Anna repeatedly returns to the apartment, for what exactly? To demolish the place some more, to slice her neck with an electric carving knife.

Possession understandably divides people in a masterpiece-or-dreck sort of way. It stays at the same pitch, doesn’t let you breathe, doesn’t make much narrative sense and is the equivalent of someone running through the streets shrieking for two hours. There is not a moment that feels like it even teeters on the brink of normalcy. It is an acidic purging of the mind where human beings in the midst of crisis recede into their most demonic unreachable selves. In short, it is one of the most vital feeling films of all time. Yes, a masterpiece.

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5 thoughts on “Short Review: Possession (1981, Zulawski)

  1. YESSSSSSSSSSS this is an absolutely essential film for me, and it’s strange I’ve never watched another Zulawski because it alone gives him carte blanche in my book to do as he pleases. I wrote about it last year here: http://armchairc.blogspot.com/2012/07/possession-andrzej-zulawski-1981.html

    I love the camera distance and the off-kilter editing. It’s never clear how we should feel about anything, other than to just be always uncomfortable. The early scenes are “realistic” only in that there is not an alien fetus monster in them, but even they are made so strange and surreal that our perspective is never allowed to gain a foothold.

    I keep hoping it will get a proper home video release here. Maybe Drafthouse Films, since they’ve gone after some high-art trash like WAKE IN FRIGHT along with the usual cult tat.

    1. Such a great review. Nailed it as usual! Yeah, those early scenes are only ‘realistic’ when compared to the rest of the film. On a broader spectrum, they are still weirder than most things. Zulawski is constantly throwing us off. Every time I thought I was getting ‘comfortable’ in the insanity of the world, he throws in a stylistic choice or someone does something and it’s like ‘silly me for thinking I could settle into this film in any way’. A favorite early example of a comparatively normal scene for the film is how a simple meetup in an empty diner 10 minutes in quickly ends with Sam Neill hurling chairs across the room and a five-man pileup! I’d really like to see more of Zulawksi’s stuff because holy bejeezus what a unique film. If his other stuff even touches on some of what’s here for just moments, it’ll be worth seeing. I still need to see Wake in Fright. I hadn’t heard of it until the restoration of it and it seems totally up my alley. I’d love for a proper Possession release. Goodness knows it deserves the best. I’ve decided I want a Possession poster really badly. I need to make this happen.

    1. You’re welcome! A cracker indeed! A crazy crazy CRAZY cracker. It’s on youtube (I don’t know how else to see it) so you should definitely check it out. It had been on my watch list for a few years and I’m so happy I finally got around to it. It’s a DOOZY.

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