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On The Psychological Horror Film Possession

Published: Fri 17 May 2024 12:43 PM
This is one of the (extra) weekly columns on music or movies. Plenty of solid analyses of Possession exist online and most of them - inevitably – contain spoilers. This column is more in the way of a first-timer's aid to getting your initial bearings.
You don’t need to have gone through a horrible breakup to relate to the 1981 film Possession, but it would help. Arguably, this is cinema’s most accurate portrayal of the lunacy of heartbreak. As one critic advised, don’t get divorced before you’ve seen this film. It’ll either mend the fences or re-assure you that breaking up really is the only sane thing to do.
This year, the Film Society circuit is providing a rare opportunity to watch this unique film with an audience. Join up, and you too can go through the whole alienating, mesmerising, infuriating, disturbing, scary, tedious, polarising, and at times utterly batshit experience in the company of a roomful of strangers. All aboard.
Over the years, Possession has earned cult devotees and a lot of haters, and not only because of its sometimes shocking imagery. The plot can be baffling, the first time around. Thus, this article. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but having some sense of the logic behind the puzzling structure of the plot may be useful. For example: it is not immediately obvious that the headlong conflict between Anna and Mark (Possession’s warring couple) has propelled doppelgangers into existence that look almost exactly the same, but with starkly opposing qualities, as the ‘real’ selves. More on that below.Country of origin
For nearly 15 years, I’ve tried to coax Sam Neill into doing an interview about his experience of making Possession, to no avail. This was the first film he made outside Australasia. As a young bloke from the Antipodes, he found himself in Berlin doing a European art movie on a set dominated by a charismatic, short-tempered Polish director (Andrzej Zulawski) who was intent on making confrontational art out of two of the worst experiences of his life. To boot, Neill was playing opposite the iconic European diva Isabelle Adjani, one of the most mercurial, brilliant and beautiful actors of her generation. All this had to have had an impact.
Clearly, Neill needed to bring his “A Game” to Possession but what exactly were the rules? The overriding rule on set during the circa 42-day shoot seems to have been to deliver exactly what Zulawski wanted. This included following orders in a scene where Neill had to slap Adjani. Harder, Zulawski insisted. Harder. When Neill baulked, Adjani told Neill to do as requested.
As Neill told the BBC in 2021: "I call it the most extreme film I've ever made, in every possible respect, and he asked of us things I wouldn't and couldn't go to now. And I think I only just escaped that film with my sanity barely intact.” It is an impressive legacy achievement, regardless.The Director
Some of Zulawski’s dictatorial methods were a by-product of him being trained, as he once put it, in the “poor man’s cinema” of his home country. Film stock in Poland was scarce and expensive, so one take per shot was the norm. Zulawski did do rehearsals with his actors but his vision was essentially locked in, with the footage also being virtually “pre-cut” in his head. One of his colleagues once told Zulawski that if he died on set, the crew could easily finish the film because there was only one way to cut the minimal amount of footage he’d shot.
This method was never going to leave a lot of room for multiple takes and coverage of lots of angles, let alone for any actorly “lets try it this way and see what happens” experimentation. Meaning: Adjani’s reputation for being short-tempered and difficult had its reasons, but so did Zulawski’s autocratic rule on set. In both cases, the quality of the outcome (arguably )justified any collateral damage that might have been incurred along the way.The Script
As mentioned, Zulawski had written the script for Possession in New York, in a two-month rush that served as therapy for two traumatic life experiences. His previous production (a three-and-a-half-hour-long science fiction epic called On the Silver Globe) had been fatally mauled by the Polish censors. For ideological transgressions, its production was halted, the sets destroyed and (supposedly) all existing footage burned. Zulawski was, in effect, sent into exile. (A version of On The Silver Globe with one hour missing has survived, and can be found here.)
In the mid-1970s, Zulawski had also gone through a harrowing divorce from the actor Malgorzata Braunek. There’s a scene in Possession where Mark finds Bob, the couple’s young son, left neglected, un-fed and unkempt. Allegedly, the same thing had happened during his divorce from Braunek.
For Zulawski then, the very personal (Braunek) was fused with the rigid art censorship still being imposed to the bitter end by the collapsing socialist states of eastern Europe. The setting of Possession in close proximity to the Berlin Wall was chosen to affirm Zulakski’s conviction that toxic authoritarianism seeps into our physical and emotional states, poisoning our personal relationships. (As the film begins, Mark - the Sam Neill character- is returning from an espionage mission. The point isn’t laboured, but Mark brings that spy/surveillance background into the context of his crumbling marriage. While he was away being a spy, she was secretly having an affair. For all of Possession’s bursts of unhinged excess, all of the small details in this film have their place.)
The script content, the sometimes swooping/sometimes intensely close-up camera movements, and the brightness of the lighting all contribute to the film’s peculiar climate of unease and dread. That said, it is the hyperbolic, almost Kabuki style of acting throughout Possession that tends to be the factor that will either draw the viewer right in, or alienate them completely. Personally, I found this vivid description of the film’s odd combination of intensity and unreality to be very accurate:
Characters experience surprise, anger, and sadness, but with few exceptions—such as when a character encounters the creature—they don’t seem convincingly afraid. This behaviour lends a dreamlike element to this abstract work of art...giving the entire film an intense unpredictability, despite its meticulously choreographed aesthetic, and turning it into a macabre dance. Ultimately, the strange, stilted acting may turn many viewers off even more than the disturbing imagery, but the film’s wildly kinetic pacing, acting, and cinematography all enhance its visceral themes of love, hate, betrayal, and madness.Doubles trouble
To give shape to the film’s miasma of psychological and political sickness, Zulawski and his co-writer Frederic Tuten used an idea they borrowed from The Double, by Fyodor Dosteoevsky. That novel is based on a doppelganger theme of two characters with identical outward appearances, but vastly different social skills and inner natures.
Briefly... “bad” Anna brings a monster lover into existence, who later overtly morphs into being a “bad” version of Mark. Significantly, Anna does so only after her year-long clandestine affair (with a human lover called Heinrich) has also begun to unravel. But perhaps to a fault, Anna’s POV is really not the lens through which we see this movie.
In parallel, Mark has projected into his life a gentle, caring and amenable vision of a “good” Anna. She is called Helen and happens to be his son’s school teacher. (Disturbingly, Helen also has the same green eyes as the monstrous version of Mark.) In Possession, one way the audience can identify the doppelgangers is via their eyes, which Zulawski colour-coded by equipping Adjani and Neill with contact lenses of different hues.
Be warned though that due to a continuity lapse (or lighting mishap) there is a climactic scene where “bad” Mark accidentally has the wrong colour eyes. Alas, the film’s limited budget didn’t allow Zulawski the luxury of a reshoot.
Less obviously, it must be significant that the Adjani character wears blue, and only blue, throughout this film. Plainly, blue is a colour often associated with melancholy – the blues! - but also with alternative realities. Alice wears blue to Wonderland, and Dorothy wears blue in her journeys through OZ. Anna really is the devil with a blue dress on.The Casting
Isabelle Adjani’s career has been inextricably linked to France, even though her mother was German, and her father Algerian. She was always Zulawski’s first choice as Anna, but initially declined the role. Since Zulawski and the French producer Marie-Laure Reyre were fans of the Australian film My Brilliant Career, the pair briefly wooed Judy Davis for the Anna role.
While Davis was still hesitating, Adjani suddenly came back into the frame, probably at the urging of her longtime companion Bruno Nuytten. (The couple had a son, Barnabe, together in 1979). Nuytten, the celebrated cinematographer, had already been hired by Zulawski to shoot Possession, but without Zulawski realising he was in a long-term relationship with Adjani. The uncast role of Mark was then offered to the guy who had played opposite Davis in My Brilliant Career - a relatively unknown and affordable young actor called Sam Neill.
Although Adjani was only 25 at the time of the Possession shoot, she already had a reputation in France (unfairly or otherwise) for being unpredictably demanding on set. In that respect, as Zulawski once joked, they were alike- she was unemployable at the time in France, and he had been made unemployable in Poland.
Apart from one brief altercation over the red-eyed chafing caused by the green contact lenses that Adjani had to wear while playing Helen, she was, Zulawski once told an interviewer, perfectly agreeable and professional. Often the first person on set, no trouble at all etc. Except for the one time, he added, when he had shoved her against the wall and threatened to kill her if she didn’t turn up the next morning wearing those problematic green contact lenses, and be willing to work.The Critical Reception
On its release, Possession was not a success with most critics and mainstream audiences, or on the horror film circuit. Ironically, at Cannes in 1982, the Palme d’Or was awarded instead to Man of Iron, a comparatively conventional (and now almost forgotten) film about the birth of the Solidarity movement in Poland, directed by Zulawski’s former mentor, Andrzej Wadja.
Adjani however, won the Best Actress prize that year at Cannes, even though the Cannes jury hedged their bets by splitting her award between her electrifying performance in Possession, and her role in the James Ivory film Quartet. Despite the Cannes award and Adjani’s high cultural profile, Possession still tanked at the box office in France, and everywhere else.
Zulawski always had his critical champions in France. Yet it probably didn’t help his chances that with this film – released at a time when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were in their ascendancy – he could be readily written off by the progressive wing of the French intelligentsia because, as one writer later put it, he was “a Polish reactionary, whose second language was French, making films in English for the American marketplace.”
Ludicrously, after the film’s limited release in the UK, Possession got included on a British government list of banned video nasties. In the US, a heavily edited version (one-third of the original running time had been cut!) was mauled by the US critics. Paramount probably didn’t recoup its investment. Famously (and maybe apocryphally) Charles Bluhdorn, the notoriously vulgar head of the Gulf+Western conglomerate that owned Paramount, had been told that Possession was a film about “Isabelle Adjani being fucked by an octopus.”
Over the years, however, the film’s reputation has steadily grown, within and beyond horror movie circles. Last year, it was listed at # 243 on Sight and Sound’s list of the Greatest Films of All Time. To be clear on this point for any horror movie snowflakes: there is blood and other body fluids in the film, and a scene involving an electric kitchen knife still makes me flinch every time. But Zulawski never accepted that it was a horror film.
Adjani’s subway scene in particular is a masterpiece of brilliantly sustained and entirely improvised hysteria. It is incredible that the camera operator Andrzej Jaroszewicz managed to stay with her, throughout. ( Is every male in Poland called Andrzej?) Overall though, there’s relatively little gore, the monster is clearly analogue, and is not an extra-terrestrial. The monstrosity in this story has been made by humans, in the place where love and hate intersect. Hey, if Anna didn’t love Mark, she wouldn’t have felt impelled to create a monster in his image.
As Anna says at one point: “I can't exist by myself because I'm afraid of myself, because I'm the maker of my own evil." Exactly. Unfortunately, it is usually only with hindsight that we can see just how much we’ve been the makers of our own evil.
Footnote: Possession is due to be shown on the Film Society circuit on these dates: Dunedin on 29 May, Christchurch on 19 August, Auckland on 23 September, while Wellington is still TBA.

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