Perhaps appropriately, given that it is a film in which visual motifs and symbols of division and doubling are so all-pervasive and pivotal to any kind of interpretation, Polish avant-garde filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession” has always retained something of a double life. It has been considered a serious piece of art cinema in many quarters, while at the same time dismissed as trashy horror tripe in others; lead actress Isabelle Adjani was garlanded with awards for best actress at Cannes and at the French Cesars in 1981, but the film also then found itself subject to the ludicrous moral panic and hysteria surrounding the government-led ‘Video Nasty’ scare in the UK, where it was banned outright for a number of years before finally getting an uncut release only in 1999. The film spawned its own ‘monster’ – another hideous double – in the USA, where its distributor lopped off about forty-five minutes from its two-hour running time and marketed it as though it were a gore-soaked rival to the oeuvre of Lucio Fulci. Though the horror element is integral to the conceptual structure of the film (its director has described the horror genre as ‘the mask’ he was using to present his metaphorical exploration of the public and the private, the external and internal difficulties of surviving in and outside of a totalitarian regime during the post-war paranoid chill of the Cold War era) – it also flirts around the conventions of many other popular genres of the day: espionage movies, the detective story and the crime flick; the relationship melodrama, or even science fiction: all of them having equally as important a role to play in the heightened tenor of feverish agitation that defines Zulawski and co-writer Frederic Tuten’s unique work.
“Possession” is consequently a film that is impossible to pigeon-hole or classify. I’ve seen it numerous times now, and I still can’t say I know precisely what Zulawski is getting at but the film undeniably retains a power to both annoy and electrify (and horrify) an audience in equal proportion with its compulsive clash of mismatched genre tropes and a shrill, sometimes hysterical and theatrically mannered style of acting it hosts. This last tendency is particularly brave of all those cast members concerned: the exaggerated mannerisms and the occasional ‘over-ripeness’ of the emoting the cast are encouraged to indulge in could easily just be mistaken for plain bad acting!
The film begins with images of a bleak, slab-grey divided Berlin; the camera pans quickly and steadily across a city cleaved in two by the Berlin Wall, accompanied by a decidedly ‘80s euro-synth arrangement of composer Andrzej Korzynski’s theme cue. Mark (Sam Neil) has just returned to the West after a trip across the border, during which he seems to have been engaged in some sort of obscure espionage work for a consortium of Western bureaucrats who meet in an unfurnished office complex. He returns to his beautiful wife, former dance teacher Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and young son Bob (Michael Hogben) only to find that his marriage is in ruins. Mark discovers a postcard from someone called Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), a physically fit martial arts expert and pretentious, mystically inclined religious/’spiritual’ type, who has clearly been having an affair with his wife. But after a violent argument between the couple, which results in a distraught Mark moving into a hotel and abandoning his son while he has a total nervous breakdown, he discovers that Anna has been routinely leaving Bob at home alone in their untidy flat while she apparently now spends all her free time with her new lover. An outraged Mark goes to visit Heinrich and his aged mother (Johanna Hofer), but is told that Heinrich has not seen Anna for some time. Anna then moves out completely, now leaving Mark to look after their son alone, although there is some competition between Bob’s pleasant young schoolteacher Helen (also played by Isabelle Adjani), who looks uncannily like Anna, and Anna’s best friend Margit (Margit Carstensen) – both of them now having designs on Mark’s affections. Yet Mark cannot stop thinking about Anna despite this female attention and a promising burgeoning relationship with Helen, and eventually he pays a detective agency to follow her and track down the location of the flat she’s been secretly staying in to meet her lover.
The detectives find her in Berlin’s run-down rain-sodden Turkish quarter, in a decaying old abandoned building with yellowing, peeling wallpaper. She comes here to have torrid sex all day with a gelatinous, tentacled monster which is gradually congealing on the rumpled bed and taking on more and more of a humanoid appearance the more often she makes love to it. She will do anything to protect her slimy lover, and starts killing anyone who threatens them with discovery, hacking up the bodies and keeping the limbs in the fridge. When Mark discovers the truth, he decides that this could be the one thing he can use to re-unite them, since everyone else, including the appalling Heinrich, reacts with such dread and disgust toward the creature. He resolves to help Anna protect and nurture her companion, even resorting to murder when he has to. However, their secret leads inevitably to warped obsession, tragedy and an evil that threatens their fragile family unit with total destruction.
Using Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina as a loose kicking off point for the surreal plot, which then takes Zulawski’s own situation with regard to his first wife and the censorship problems he experienced in Poland as its main subject matter, the film establishes an idiosyncratic style from its opening seconds – an unsettling waywardness maintained to the very end. Dizzying use is made of encircling camera motions; wild, hand-held perambulations occur throughout, the camera hurrying after the characters as they trek across various and varied locations around the bleak city of West Berlin circa 1980: locations which form as much of the characters of this film as the protagonists. Through its constant and extremely unusual use of wide-angle lenses it is also lent an unusually persistent hallucinogenic quality, while at the same time the naturalistic photography engenders a realistic sense of Berlin as a particular place in a particular time, leaving us with a great sense of the milieu in which the film was shot. Berlin is captured on film extremely evocatively -- pitting all the clean grey tower block mundaneness of early-eighties West Berlin against the crooked oddness, the crumbling dereliction and faded architectural splendour of the Sebastianstrasse district along which the Berlin Wall once – as is seen here -- bisected the street with its semi-circular ribbon of concrete, and which provides the setting for Anna’s unusual and disturbing clandestine sexual assignations. The acting of Neil and Adjani is heightened and ‘full on’, with frequent shouting matches and increasingly extreme behaviour such as self-harm and self-neglect, demonstrating the couple’s inner turmoil in surrealistic melodramatic style.
It has to be said again that Isabelle Adjani gives one of the most extreme and uncompromising performances in film history here: the fact that she can conjure and project such an image of derangement is troubling in itself and makes her, perhaps unfairly, seem like quite a scary person to know! The sequence that possibly gives the film its title, where a primal, witch-like Adjani seems to indulge in a wild atavistic sex orgy with the gods in a wet, dimly lit German subway, after which she miscarries some foul-looking evil effluence onto the damp concrete, constitutes undoubtedly one of the most singularly unpleasant pieces of film you will ever see (no description can quite do it justice), and was only recently given a run for its money by Lars Von Trier in “Antichrist” – a film which bears uncanny similarities, in themes and its general approach to “Possession”, although nothing can beat the sheer intensity and abandon of Adjani’s electrifying pursuit of God through the medium of foul-looking-sex-with-a-slimy-tentacle-man-octopus creature!
The doppelgänger theme, echoed in the division of Berlin into cold modernist apartments blandly furnished and the gloomy Weimar-era buildings of an older, poorer side of the city, crops up in many other doublings -- not just of characters (Adjani being both the wicked witch that is Anna and the maternal, carefree Helen; while Sam Neil’s Mark is also chillingly doubled by the end of the film), but of precise images, particularly those involving the fragile child, Bob. Most disturbingly, the fate of the absurd Heinrich is rehearsed by Bob in the very final image of the film, contributing to one of the many perplexing strands which come at the end of the movie. “Possession” is one of those films, like David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”, which doesn’t ever seem to deliver a completely coherent ‘meaning’ but which feeds off of a number of latent possibilities that keep it seeming fresh and inviting to those looking for a completely one-off cinematic experience -- even twenty years after the final fall of its most dominant symbol. It’s not a film that one can sit and watch idly for enjoyment very often, but each return to it reveals new layers and possibilities of interpretation that give it a power that lies beyond that of its specific setting in history.
“Possession” arrives on Blu-ray in the UK sporting a beautiful new HD transfer. This is the director’s cut, completely how Zulawski intended the film to look, which means it comes minus the additional music which was added to the Anchor Bay DVD release from 2000. The transfer is fairly impressive although there are a few darker scenes which look excessively grainy -- but these only last a matter of seconds. In general this constitutes a worthy upgrade over previous standard definition transfers, but still the deal is sealed by the addition of an even more comprehensive set of extras than before:
Those who recall that early US DVD release may remember that it included a commentary track featuring Zulawski that wasn’t included on the Second Sight DVD release a year or so ago. Thankfully, Zulawski’s commentary with Daniel Bird now crops up here as part of an extensive and wide ranging Blu-ray extras package, as does a second commentary by co-writer Frederic Tuten whose reverence for this period of collaboration with Zulawski shines through loud and clear. Both commentaries provide interesting insights and discussions on the film and it’s director’s intentions but even more is explored in “The Other Side of the Wall – The Making of Possession” -- an in-depth 51 minute documentary which delves into the background and inspiration behind the film and covers every aspect of the production, from the writing process to the casting and the shooting. Zulawski is interviewed at length, of course, but there’s also extensive participation from the film’s American co-writer Frederic Tuten once again, who explains here how the collaboration came to be, talks about the working method the two developed, and relates how surprised he was by the finished film since he had never envisioned the monster actually being seen unambiguously on screen. The film’s cinematographer Bruno Nyutten talks about the very particular difficulties inherent in the composition of a film that is photographed entirely using wide-angle lenses, and French producer Marie-Laure Reyre talks about the divided critical reception the film received at the time and its subsequent revaluation as a cult classic.
This is as good and thorough an examination of the making of a film and the circumstances surrounding its production as you could ever hope to see, with the political backdrop and the personal turmoil that went into its creation all covered in excellent detail. But it doesn’t stop there, because the disc also includes a 36 minute interview with Zulawski, in which he talks in French (with English captions) in even greater detail about certain aspects of the production, including the difficult circumstances he’d endured under a censorious Polish regime while attempting to make his previous film, which led him to abandon the project and leave the country at the same time as his first marriage was collapsing – all elements which were instrumental in the conception of “Possession”. He then talks about Isabelle Adjani in great depth: the sheer luck involved in her coming to be cast in the film at all after she had previously turned the role down flat; her temperament and behaviour on set (not as bad as her reputation would have led one to believe, but Zulawski still claims that he once had to threaten to kill her in order to get her to wear the green contact lenses she was required to appear in as the alter ego character Helen!) and her amazing performance in the subway miscarriage scene, which was the final piece of the movie to be shot. Zulawski also goes into great detail here about Carlo Rambaldi’s involvement in the creation of the tentacled monster, and how a misunderstanding about the schedule in pre-production led to the great Italian special effects artist - accustomed to being given six weeks to prepare a single short effects shot on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” - having to concoct a creature out of bits and pieces overnight!
When I reviewed the original UK DVD release, I wrote that ‘taken together, these 87 minutes of background material give you everything there is to know about what is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing, bizarre and sometimes most infuriating pieces of surrealist horror melodrama ever seen on the silver screen’ – but this Blu-ray edition contains more still! First up is an interesting comparison featurette “Repossessed” which compares the 1983 American re-edit with the original. Basically, aside from cutting 40 minutes of material, the whole film has been put through the mangle in a crude attempt to transform it into another Exorcist” or Omen style demonic possession film. It looks a mess and a travesty, but typical of US distributor practises of the day. “A Divided City: The Locations of Possession” compares West Berlin scenes from the film with the same locations today. Very little appears to have changed, with even the same tendency to daub the city’s grand 19th century architecture in spray painted graffiti still ubiquitous.
These shorter featurettes are joined by several new interviews which add even more detail to the background on Zulawski’s place in the film world. “The Sounds of Possession” is a 20 minute interview with composer Andrzej Korzynski who provided the music for the film and six other works by Zulawski. The two were childhood friends and Korzynski relates his recollections of their friendship and his memories of working on Zulawski’s projects in Poland before the Eastern bloc authorities’ censorship forced him to flee to France. Finally the disc also features two short six and five minute mini featurettes: the first is an interview with the late producer Christian Ferry, who died in 2011. He talks here briefly about how he came to hear about Zulawski’s work. Last but not least is an excellent five minute video essay on the work of Polish poster artist Barbara Baranowska, mostly known by the name Basha and most famous outside her native country for the striking work she did for the poster for Zulawski’s “Possession”. Accompanied by stills of some of her most interesting work, critic and curator Daniel Bird relates how this graduate of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts went on to design book jackets and to illustrate children’s books in Poland before becoming part of a wave of designers how adapted cut and paste modernist techniques as part of film poster design. When she moved to Paris in the late-sixties, Basha worked on a number of memorable film posters including the French poster for Hammer’s “The Twins of Evil” and, of course, “Possession” with its sexually provocative image of a female bust encircled by a Medusa-like tentacles emerging from behind its head.
Finally, the Blu-ray includes the film’s theatrical trailer. This UK release by Second Sight provides a comprehensive overview of the film and its background and is an absolute must, and I recommend it thoroughly.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!