Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession was initially unleashed to its first audience 35 years ago at The Cannes Film Festival. The film and Isabelle Adjani’s performance was and remains the stuff of legend.
She received the festival’s Best Actress Award. The film itself had a profound and lasting impact on Cannes Film Festival audiences. Many film critics present appeared to like it, but were unable to explain what it was. It defied genre. While many critics liked it, almost as many hated it. Not too long after rumors began to circulate that Adjani had suffered a nervous breakdown which many blamed on the pressures of playing the film’s lead. Initially it seemed that Adjani was eager to promote the film. As the film began to screen in Europe, audience reactions ranged from “confused” to “repulsed” to “angry.”
As French audiences began to dwindle at an alarming rate, Adjani’s attitude toward her role, the movie and the director became critical. It didn’t seem to be a “marketing ploy” — and if it was, Andrzej Zulawski was not happy about it. While I’m unaware of the actor ever directly blaming Zulawski or her role in Possession for what appears to have been a very real breakdown, she never gave a definite answer. It was clear that Adjani was initially eager to work with Zulawski. It was clear she fully understood what she needed to do as the character.
If one tries to sort the “gossip” from “truth” — it becomes clear that Adjani gave herself over to this particular role unlike she had ever done before or since. Despite the honor and the acclaim she received for her performance, Adjani seems to have opted to distance herself from the movie as quickly as possible. Since it’s brief release in France, she has never spoken of the experience beyond the implication that she felt she had been manipulated by Zulawski.
The one thing she did state has remained firmly intertwined with Possession‘s history:
Zulawski, Bruno Nuytten (Cinematographer and soon-to-married to the film’s lead actress), Adjani and the crew were assembled under the infamously long and deep passenger tunnel beneath U-Platz der Luftbrücke Subway Station in Berlin. The film’s special effects crew had just fitted Adjani with surprisingly realistic fluid-filled bags. It is doubtful that anyone knew that Isabel Adjani was about to go far and beyond her director’s expectations. Just before Andrzej uttered “Aktion!” Adjani approached him and asked how she should approach the violent seizure as described in her script. He thought about it and was not completely sure how to articulate what he wanted, but the first words that came to his mind and through his lips to Adjani’s ears were essentially that this scene should look like a tribal sort of violent dance.
Reportedly Adjani thought this over for a minute. Turned to her director once more for guidance that was a bit more specific.
“Fuck the air.”
It was with this very direct response Isabelle Adjani would create what would soon become and remains one of – if not the most disturbing scenes in cinematic history. What Adjani does far below the Berlin subway system is almost impossible to describe. I think the aspect of Adjani’s convulsive “dance” is that it never feels false. You don’t need to have ever been to Berlin to realize that she is writhing and slamming about the dirty walls, floor and the air of a real space. This is no film set. It is profoundly repulsive and fascinating all at once. And just as you think this “fit” is over, Adjani begins to drain her rigged bags. Suddenly the entire scene somehow manages to amp-up to a whole new level of horror.
The most horrific and disgusting aspect is not the impact of the lo-fi but highly effective bags — it is Adjani’s face, eyes and the sounds she emits as the infamous scene comes to its end.
Distributors pushed Possession out to Europe with a great deal of hesitation. It failed to attract audiences but it was a most definite part of pop culture conversation. It was banned by a large number of European townships. Most unlucky, the UK banned it before it could even find a screen. It would be another 2 years before Possession screened ever so briefly in Manhattan. Another year or so later the film was secured by several different distributors who edited the film to make it shorter, to censor the more “offensive” moments and to re-construct the entire film. Several different versions were released on VHS. These versions make no sense. Yet something remained that made a younger generation more curious. As bad as those VHS versions were, a cult-following was born. It would not be until 1999 that an “uncut” version of Possession would finally find its way to DVD. It didn’t take long for word to get out that it was not the version as Zulawski intended. It has barely been a year since Mondo-Vision out of Irvine, CA fully restored and issued the actual full length version to DVD/Blu-ray. It has been the first “hit” Mondo-Vision has issued.
Even with the passing of 35 years, Possession remains unaged and is still upsetting the viewers.
The most casual mention of it among fellow cinephiles incites repulsion, annoyance, unexpected emotions resulting in adamant claims of misogyny and cinematic atrocity. In 1999, I made the mistake of suggesting a Andrzej Zulawski Retrospective at a film festival board meeting. My suggestion was resoundingly turned-down. I would later chat with several of the board members who were particularly frustrated with my suggestion. I was disappointed to discover that not a single opinion was valid. None of them had ever seen it. One key member of the board told me, “I don’t need to see it. I’ve heard about it for years and it will never screen here.”
Perhaps the most almost violent reaction I’ve witness came from an esteemed and infamous filmmaker herself. Actually she has probably upset as many audiences as Zulawski. She dismissed Possession as “pretentious meaningless human cruelty disguised as Art House Cinema.” One particularly brave soul pointed out that most of her films could be explained in the same way. I am not sure if he said this to provoke her or to make a point. But her face took on a shade of red I had never seen. She stormed away muttering something about the need for a cigarette.
A week later I found out she hadn’t actually ever seen it. Since then she has and her opinion has taken a dramatic turn. It is rather funny that she now seems convinced that she always knew Possession was a work of “breathtaking cinematic art far ahead of its time!”
It would be unfair to expect an audience to to have an understanding of the artist’s identity or a grasp of how this artist’s identity was formed. The art needs to be able to stand on its own. One should never have to research to access a work of art. There must always be something within it that either entertains or resonates to an audience. But art would be so boring if all of it only served to entertain or resonate. From time to time an artist creates work that is deeply challenging. It is at that time the audience must adjust their eyes to gain more perspective on what is being shown. In the world of Film Art, this is often the case. Not every member of the audience will feel the need to engage with a film beyond the superficial or visual perspectives.
But I am one of many who marvel at what a filmmaker sometimes achieves. While we are entertained to a point and we might feel a pull toward resonation — it is not always so easy to identify the “points” or the aspects that try to resonate.
This is especially true when approaching a filmmaker like Andrzej Zulawski. Most of his films are beyond “visual.” Often his films take on an almost epic scale of the visceral. This is especially true of his films prior to 1999. Zulawski films seem propelled by a frantic intensity that fuses with his equally visual sense which highlights the metaphorical or allegorical aspects of his stories. To fully encage with is work the viewer needs to gain some insight into his life and what has formed his view/philosophy. This allows access to a myriad of meanings lurking just behind or within one of his characters. Most importantly the viewer secures a perspective on why his films tend to illicit an often mixed bag of reactions. Understanding more about him allows the audience to tap into why what we see matters to us.
As I sit here and attempt to pursue a “request” to articulate my opinion of Andrzej Zulawski, his film Possession and the opposition it continues to generate, I suspect it is important to note my reality. All of the factors that have formed my identity is what continually draws me into his specific cinematic world. My fear of narcissism, pity and losing what I think is best called “anonymity” prevent me from sharing what I’m inclined to share. Beside this self-clarification “need” might be beneficial here, but it might just be a “desire” that would work in opposition to what I’ve been asked to convey. It seems like such a basic fact, but I’m often surprised how many people fail to realize that what we see in art is largely derived from what we bring to it. In the case of Film Art, what we project mingles with what is projected on the screen. It is a fundamental understanding of how we relate to art.
Yet this core concept escapes a number of people. Suffice to say, that if life has presented a number of fucked-up challenges in life — what resonates or draws you into a art will be very different from someone who has been blessed with easier or more reasonable challenges. This lucky individual is less likely to be immediately drawn into darker examinations of the human experience. It does not mean that this lucky individual should avoid these challenging works, but they might have to work a bit harder to access them.
The slow emergence of “re-evaluation” of Andrzej Zulawski and Possession has been a long time in coming. In large part this is due to Mondo-Vision’s beautiful restoration work on some of his most vital work. Following a successful run of Possession at New York’s Film Forum in late 2011, two organizations decided to hold retrospectives of the director’s work. If there were any concerns when the Brooklyn Academy of Music held their retrospective in 2012, they vanished as soon as tickets went on sale.
BAM titled their retrospective “Hysterical Excess: Discovering Andrzej Zulawski.” This did not rest easily with the filmmaker. It was because of this title he chose not to attend or participate.
Film Comment‘s Margaret Barton-Fumo spoke with Andrzej Zulawski and asked him how he felt about the BAM’s title, “This is the exact reason I am here in Warsaw and not in New York. I hated it so profoundly, it sounded so base—and I thank you for asking. On the other hand, I understand that these nice good people want to have something catchy. But I’m totally, totally aghast. I’m against this, and this is the reason I never came.”
It is of great import that he takes offense at the use of the word “hysteria” to describe his work. The word has not only taken on a pejorative meaning, it is a politically unethical word choice. It is so easy to disagree. Both of the central male and female characters seem to be in a state of frantic panic which “hysteria” makes perfect sense. One on of the amazing feats of Adjani’s performance is that she seems to ampying her level of frantically shrill and manic energy up with each passing scene. When we first see “Anna” she appears tensely coiled-up — trying hard to suppress something. A few moments later she has uncoiled and emotions and panic jump from 1 to 10. It is a high wire act without a net in which Isabelle Adjani somehow manages to escalate her “hysteria” well out of measurable range. If the maximum scale is 10, Adjani seems to be closer to 100 by the mid-point of the film. The important difference that offends Zulawski is that he is using a concept of “hysteria” to criticize what causes it. The work is frantic about what culture perceives as “hysteria” — it is unfair to sum up the total of his work to “hysterical excess.” Baron-Fumo was able to discuss the film and the fact that the filmmaker had always called Possession his most “personal” film.
Zulawski went into great detail of how the disintegration of his marriage seemed to mirror what he saw in Eastern Europe at that time. His response to Baron-Fumo’s questions are exactly as he is — open, honest and extremely articulate. For the filmmaker, Possession is a film he still thinks about in relation to what it means outside his own very private experience. It is clear that he is aware it carries a universal story that morphs into something completely unique, but he is not comfortable in fully addressing this aspect.
His on-going struggle to reflect beyond his 1981 film remains too close to the bone to claim ownership beyond what he sees as a tragic experience that happened in his life. It is clear that he would prefer to dismiss the concepts of metaphors, allegories, horror and surrealism — but Zulawski is far too intelligent not to realize that those concepts exist within the frames of the movie.
While he recoils at the word “hysteria” and its origin as misogynistic and psychologically confused attitude toward women. He is equally repulsed at the idea of referring to his work as “excessive.” He does understand the confusion his cinematic world creates. He is self-aware. He continues to feel it essential that the audience understand how these earlier films are rooted in his own experience.
The first half of his filmmaking career is intensely experimental. This visionary and challenging use of cinema seems to be reaching for that idea of compulsive beauty or psychic automatism almost as André Breton defined it in his Surrealist Manifesto. Almost. I am not only uncomfortable in putting too much surrealist emphasis on his work — I suspect that the links to Berton’s philosophy are purely accidental. Andrzej Zulawski makes his own rules and he ends up breaking a lot of unstated “rules” related to depicting “reality.” Zulawski seems to be creating new “rules” as it is difficult to find any level of “the predictable” as he leads us through a perverted idea of “reality.” This is a world that it wound-up in the environment, culture, repression and oppression to which this artist was born. The challenges he experienced formed him into a powerful artist whose vision pushes beyond the realm of anticipated boundaries. In the world of these early films, characters are forever fighting and clawing at reality of world that undervalues the individual as well as the ability to live the life they want to live. They become both victim and victimizer.
This is true of several of his films, but most certainly true of his infamously 1996 film, Szamanka (She-Shaman) — a film that confused and shocked as much as it entertained. It is also found in the neon-drenched, adrenaline fueled kinetic and insanely unhinged power of 1985’s L’Amour braque/Mad Love. This loose re-interpretation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot retains a vital piece of experimental cinema — and those who see it now will realize that much of what they thought was “original” in American mainstream cinema was really directly borrowed from L’Amour braque. Christopher Nolan or Kathryn Bigelow, anyone? But it is Possession that must reflects the imagination and perspective of an artist formed through the fires of a government intent on suppressing and oppressing the individuals caught within it.
Andrzej Zulawski was in 1940 Poland. The great nephew of writer Jerzy Zulawski whose The Lunar Trilogy, it almost seems predictable that Andrzej as Film Artist was pre-destined to clash with the Polish government. He studied the art of film in the world of 1950’s Paris, but returned to Poland to establish himself as an artist. He achieved fame in Poland, but that fame was tied more to the controversy of censorship than art. Eventually he opted to leave his native country in 1972 for France. He quickly established himself as a filmmaker of note. As it can easily be understood, I doubt he has ever gotten over the level of despair he felt as his artistic voice was continually muted, defeated and wasted by his homelands’ government. In France his work was and remains highly regarded. 1975’s L’Important c’est d’aimer / That Most Important Thing: Love remains a classic and beloved film.
But no one was prepared for what he unveiled at The Cannes Film Festival in 1981.
I can easily write “a review” of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession on RottenTomatoes, IMDB and Letterboxd. Assigning a rating and a quick review is simple. I have done that. As far as I am concerned Possession is a cinematic masterpiece. The challenge is slip into the movie’s frantic energy, darkness and apocalyptic / nihilistic nightmare and still avoid giving out “spoilers.” Because the whole point of the “request” to create this post is to possibly spur more people to see it. And if you did see it and didn’t like it, maybe this post will lead you to “re-evaluate” what you saw.
There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s notorious and brilliantly insane film. And these meaning are not limited to the director’s sole opinion. He knows this.
On the most superficial level Possession is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to the psycho-sexual.
From another perspective that directly ties to it’s creator’s intent, it is a depiction of the devastation, rage, despair and horror which divorce can cause for wife, husband and child. The tragic implications of a family destroyed takes the form of of a surreal and metaphorical crisis of identity. As the husband fights to keep the marriage together he only manages to “twist the knife of already fixed pain” for both himself and his wife. The wife slips into a full-tilt conflict over “the auto-piolt” implications of motherhood and deep need to rebel against repression and isolation her marriage has provided.
As the husband slips into a sort of existential stupor, his wife seeks out sexual validation and the intense need for connection that very quickly leads the audience into the realm of repulsive horror. A horror in which the wife seeks to replace her spouse with something of her own creation. As the husband begins to climb out of his stupor, he starts to sense the implications of his wife’s choice. He tries to protect their son but is faced with his own challenge. His need to recapture his spouse leads him into a less violent but equally disturbing attempt to replace his wife. Of course the most tragic aspect of the situation is their child. He becomes nothing more than a vague symbol to both Anna and Mark.
From another point of view, and this is the one I apply, Possession is a masterful articulation of the dire implications and consequences of forcing identity/identities into a tiny box not of her/his/it’s own design. Under what amounts to mind-numbing surveillance, control, oppression, repression and judgement — the identity/identities are pushed to the point of insanity. A tiny box is not an appropriate home for a human. It is an even more insurmountable task to contain marriage, parenthood, desire, expression, anger, sex and love into a tiny box. Rebellion must occur. But it will not be a sane rebel who emerges. It will be an outrageous blood thirsty psychotic who comes out of that box seeking vengeance, power and a misplaced understanding of love. What comes out of this boxed world is a perversion of humanity. And it is not a human perversion. It is an inflicted perversion created by the very “entity” that creates, seals and surveils the box.
It really doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. When the viewer applies thought to the extreme horrors we are shown, the film works from any vantage point.
It goes without saying that Possession is not for all tastes. It most certainly is not for the the faint of heart or the squeamish. And it would be child abuse to allow a child to watch this movie. It is equally important to understand that should you not be shocked, offended, repulsed or even a bit amused by some or most of what you see — Zulawski has failed. It is Andrzej Zulawski’s motivational intent to upset the viewer. The challenging and disturbing nature of Possession is fact. But it is a mistake to think this film is perverse, misogynistic or meaningless. This film is wrought with meaning and it is a critique / study of why human beings can become perverse or insane.
To deny Possession a place on the shelf of Cinematic Masterpiece within the context of “experimental” would be short-sighted.
Andrzej Zulawski’s cinematic artistry and Possession offer no way out. You have no choice. Both he and his iconic 1981 film refuse to be forgotten. Possession is true Film Art. And, if anything, it’s validity has never been more potentially viable than now. As we move further into the 21st Century the challenges of individual freedoms, privacy and the ability to control our own lives seem to be mounting against us.
Just because the Berlin Wall came down does not mean it will not be reconstructed.
If you have not seen it, seek it out. And if you think you saw it and didn’t like or understand it. Consider a re-evaluation. You might be surprised. I can assure that you will not be bored.
I can’t help but add that should you ever have the opportunity to hear Andrzej Zulawski, Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders speak, always take advantage of it. These three important filmmakers are widely different and yet oddly aligned. Just listening to each of these filmmakers discuss their work, art or life in general is fascinating. All three are highly intellectual without any air of superiority. A discussion with one of these men is a true experience. One of the aspects of each of these artist is that they do not crave or need your approval. In fact if approached from the perspective of “a fan” that are less likely to respond. These three men — especially Andrzej Zulawki — are very much grounded in reality and logic. They do not thrive in the “celebrity bubble” that encapsulates most of their contemporaries.
Only their work takes flight…
So I find myself coming back to a key scene in Possession where the husband, played by Sam Neill, is essentially interrogated. A question is posed to him, “Does Our Subject Still Wear Pink Socks?” It is this line that starts the journey into the darkest corners of the human psyche as well as the darkest corners of a world that equates the color of socks to assessing individuality.
Before you step into the experience of Possession, this might assist you.
Are you ready or not?