Critic After Dark

ISABELLE ADJANI and Sam Neill in a scene from the film Possession (1981).

Movie Review
Directed by Andrez Zulawski

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(Warning: plot and narrative twists discussed in explicit detail.)

WATCHING Andrez Zulawski’s Possession (1981) again I was struck not so much by the violence and bodily fluids being flung about as I was by the feelings being wielded like so much casual cutlery. When it comes to extreme horror, the film has been sadly left behind by more recent arthouse efforts such as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist or (for sheer masochistic suffering) Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs  “sadly” not because this film should stay top of the heap but because the genre has chosen to go in the rather fruitless direction of mere physical torment and mutilation, to the point of numbness.

Zulawski reportedly based the film on his experience of divorce from actress Malgorzata Braunek and while we (or I) have no privileged access to what went on between the two, I’ll hazard a guess that the filmmaker took what happened as more a pretext or jumping-off point to go berserk. Folks have called this perhaps the ugliest divorce ever caught on screen; if they’re not right I suspect they’re not too far off.

The first half hour builds solid groundwork, the spectacle of a marriage falling apart, complete with walkouts, yelling, child neglect (the last being particularly distressing — Zulawski mentions basing it on what actually happened to his son). So far so Bergman, with the actors (Isabelle Adjani as the straying Anna, Sam Neill as distraught husband Mark, Heinz Bennent as Anna’s eccentric lover Heinrich) starting out at fever pitch and pushing even further.

“Further” involves Anna desperately hacking a roast to pieces with an electric carver then shoving the pieces into a whining meat grinder (the whine not unlike that of a dentist drill). It involves detectives, surveillance, the grotesque discovery that Anna may be hiding a third lover in an abandoned apartment building, in a desolate corner of the city (Berlin, divided by the Wall the way continent and couple are divided into West and East, Mark and Anna). The emotions at this point are overwrought but still dramatically plausible, the actors having built enough momentum to take off, so to speak, to the next level.

Zulawski at this point seems to take inspiration from the dance musical, where a character experiences an emotion so thoroughly and immensely he has no choice but to express it in song (or dance) — think Gene Kelly stomping on puddles in Singin’ in the Rain or Fred Astaire violating the laws of gravity in Royal Wedding. When Anna starts laughing out loud in the subway, her body spinning in increasingly wild gyrations (not unlike the tarantella, or a mystic undergoing religious or drug-induced ecstasy), she punctuates her hysteria with odd fluttering wrist movements, like a hatchling prematurely trying to fly —  a graceful, strangely precise gesture whose beauty (so delicate, so unexpected) adds an extra jolt of shock to the horror.

Beyond dance, beyond the duet of man and woman shrieking at each other from across a chasm of irreconcilable differences? The film brings in special-effect puppeteer Carlo Rimbaldi (Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. a year later); the resulting scenes can so easily falter one way or another, probably does; wouldn’t be surprised to learn of screenings where the audience bursts out in laughter. But Zulawski keeps Rimbaldi’s creation in the relative dark, drenches it in sticky slippery blood (the smell on set must have been awful, even if the blood was fake), imbues the imagery with the kind of sensual beauty that makes for great horror — one imagines would-be animé filmmakers looking at this and perpetuating the hentai genre only a few years later, or Hokusai gazing at this ’80s incarnation of his infamous woodwork and nodding his approval.

I mentioned beauty; might as well include humor. Zulawski goes so far so often one wonders if he’s seriously going to do what he’s about to do (he either exceeds expectation or spins off to another direction entirely) or if he’s openly inviting you to laugh. Certainly Heinrich —  reportedly modeled after Margot’s lover —  is meant to be an object of fun and is: caressing Mark’s face or chest, pausing in a Karate Kid crane stance before kicking Mark in the face (Heinrich’s a funny and also unsettlingly adept fighter), he’s the kind of philosophical poseur one dearly wants to knee in the groin and is the touch of astringency needed to cut through the film’s intensity.

Zulawski regrets having to work around Rimbaldi’s creation (supposed to slowly gestate in a bathtub into something more human —  which didn’t happen due to budget and time constraints) and having to cut out an extra character, an older man who rescued Anna, both presumably helping clarify the narrative — but part of the film’s power is how near-incomprehensible it all is, how the narrative feels incomplete, as if something important behind Anna’s infidelity is being withheld, how we must look to the nuances and suggestions in Anna’s relationship to Mark for some clue to the answer. We flounder and fail to understand, but Zulawski’s real achievement is in making us care enough for the characters to want to understand.

In their trajectory towards whatever fate is in store, Anna and Mark produce doppelgangers —  Anna in the form of Mark’s teacher Helen (which makes a kind of eccentric sense: what other adult aside from the parent is more important or more present in a child’s life than his teacher?), Mark in the form of a second Mark as the ultimate manifestation of Anna’s infidelity. The pair seem to shed anguish and human suffering like arthropods outgrowing their chitin shells, about to sprout new wings or new abilities as they emerge, blankly clean.

The ending is darkly hinted at, through sirens and booming jet engines and rocket fire, through Helen gazing wide-eyed at the camera and new Mark writhing behind clouded glass, seeking a way to break in — break through to an even higher level.

But that’s the film looking forward: the vision wouldn’t have such a kick if it didn’t leave us with a sense of grief at what’s being left behind. For all the makeup effects and Rimbaldi’s clumsy (yet eerily erotic) prosthetics, the film’s most indelible moments remain those where man and woman experience mere human pain, caused by something unaccountably larger than either of them. It’s Mark listening to Anna, so beautiful, so sad, telling of a torment so intense it literally twisted her into knots; it’s any man hearing any woman (or vice versa) say words he can’t understand about some event he can’t accept; it’s any of us witnessing a country dear to us (the United States, Ukraine, the Philippines) sliding into madness, for reasons we have yet to fathom. You watch your beloved in all your helplessness, and despair of her ever becoming whole again.