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Like being strapped into an amusement park ride, sitting in the darkness as a horror movie begins there is a mixture of giddy fun and an often embarrassing dread of what we are submitting ourselves to — will it be a fun rush of the senses or a stomach churning sort of emotional litmus test?

Is that a closet? Why was it blocked?  Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Is that a closet? Why was it blocked?
Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Does the rollercoaster that tilts and sends on a loop turing us upside down at a high speed offer more fun than one limited to fast turns with slow accents followed by forced down hill trajectory offer more satisfaction?

The answer is subjective. There is no right or wrong.

But what is it about some horror films that not only frighten us, but linger long after the house lights come back up? Most horror films offer a quick intensity that leaves us fairly quickly. Sometimes, however, a horror film comes along that offers something a bit more jolting. The kind of jolt that leaves us entertained, afraid, shocked and unsettled. This is the sort of jolt that comes back to haunt us as we try to fall asleep or walk down a dark corridor.

"I don't like them there." Catherine Deneuve REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

“I don’t like them there.”
Catherine Deneuve
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

In 1965 Roman Polanski delivered a new sort of horror film. Repulsion shocked audiences upon initial release. It still upsets many. Why? Catherine Deneuve plays Carol. A beautiful but seemingly perpetual daydreamer who discovers that she is to be left all alone in the large apartment she shares with her older sister. What happens to Carol and those who venture into this apartment while the sister is out on a brief holiday is more than unexpected, it is lethal. Carol is not a daydreamer, she is clearly suffering with some sort of emotional problem. Is this an issue related to some form of sexual trauma? Is this mental illness? Is this some form of depressive exhaustion? What is wrong with Carol? 

Carol contemplates the dangers of the washroom as perspective continues to warp... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Carol contemplates the dangers of the washroom as perspective continues to warp…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Repulsion wastes no time in establishing something clearly: the camera’s perspective is simply off. We are following Carol through her mundane life as a beautician, then walking through the streets of London and finally at the apartment she shares with her sister. Roman Polanski and Cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, carefully set each shot from strange angles. As the film progresses, the camera’s perceptions become more odd. We are seeing reality through Carol’s perception of it. As Deneuve’s character slips into reality filled with threat and menace, we are not entirely sure if what we are seeing can be trusted.

Catherine Deneuve in a moment of iconic cinema... REPULSION Roman Polanski, 1965 Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Catherine Deneuve in a moment of iconic cinema…
REPULSION
Roman Polanski, 1965
Cinematography | Gilbert Taylor

Surely those are not arms slipping out of the walls to grab and molest Carol. Right? Or have we just entered some twisted sort of paranormal horror? Before long the audience comes to understand that we are witnessing a psychotic break. A break that slips so far into the darkest corner of human psyche that no one is safe. Repulsion stays with the viewer.

But the threat filled menace of human perception would take on a far more ambiguous stance in Polanski’s 1968 horror masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby.

"Pray for Rosemary's Baby." Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

At first glance or after an audiences’ first viewing, this would appear to be a full-on exorcise in Satanic horror at it’s most dire. An innocent woman has been set up to procreate with The Devil and deliver The Anti-Christ. As Rosemary’s life in her new home begins she is faced with a creepy basement laundry room, the death of a new friend and an uncomfortable forced friendship with nosey and eccentric neighbors.

Polanski and Cinematographer, William A. Fraker, begin to establish an interesting camera perspective almost as soon as Rosemary and her husband move into their new apartment. The use of cinematography is not immediately noticeable, but it is there from the beginning.

A gift or a curse?  Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A gift or a curse?
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Halls and doorways take on a suspicious and curious perspective. As Rosemary’s paranoia and fears begin to mount, the audience becomes pulled into a literal sort of maze of unanswered perspective. The first of Fraker’s shots that really grabs our attention is the use of Rosemary’s front door peephole. Ruth Gordon’s Minnie Castevet is truly iconic movie character. At first comical, then slightly annoying — and slowly she shifts to something altogether horrifying. When Rosemary looks out her peephole, we gain a distorted perception of Minnie that is warped and unsettling. She no longer looks like the kooky old bat next door. She looks suspicious and vaguely reminiscent of a clown. Not the kind of clown at whom you might laugh, the sort that would make you pull your child back and avoid at all costs.

large_rosemarys_baby_cesar-zamora-5

Rosemary and the audience get a whole new perspective on the eccentric woman next door. Ruth Gordon Rosemary’s Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A building suicide, nosy people and a dear friend’s creepy stories related to the old building which contains her new apartment — Rosemary is understandably more than a little shaken. But after the wacky Minnie creates two cups of chocolate “mouse” for Rosemary and her husband, she finds the taste feature an unpleasant aftertaste. Her husband almost becomes angry that she doesn’t want to eat it. She only eats a bit. Soon she is feeling drugged. Once again slightly tilting the perspective, Rosemary passes out.

Blame it on Minnie's "chocolate mouse" or is it a symptom of something else? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Blame it on Minnie’s “chocolate mouse” or is it a symptom of something else?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

We are then brought into Rosemary’s dreams. We have already been here briefly before when she dreams of a childhood incident with a Catholic Nun yet hears the annoying banter of her odd neighbors, Minnie and Roman. Their voices take the place of the Nun’s. But this time Rosemary’s dream is far more articulated and disturbing. She dreams of a sort of sexual ritual wherein all of the old neighbors of her building are standing around her bed.

"Perhaps you'd better have your legs tied down in case of convulsions." Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

“Perhaps you’d better have your legs tied down in case of convulsions.”
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

They are nude. Suddenly a demonic animal is running it’s claws across her body. Rosemary is in dream state. She observes and follows instructions without objection. But suddenly, she is alarmed and seems to have awoken.

“This is no dream! This is really happening!”

But then she does wakes up and it is the next morning. She is nude and she has long scratches across her back. She quickly realizes that her husband has ravished her in what is an inappropriate sexual encounter. Filmed in 1967, while her character feels her husband has raped her, she pushes this feeling down. But we can tell Rosemary almost hopes it was all just a bad dream rather than face the fact that her husband had her while she was passed out ill. Alas, this is not an option for Rosemary. Her husband has violated her. Trauma much?

A sluggish Rosemary says, "I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman." And her husband responds, "Thanks a lot."  Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

A sluggish Rosemary says, “I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman.”
And her husband responds, “Thanks a lot.”
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

William A. Fraker’s masterful camerawork continues to pull us back. Perceptions are never quite right again. in one of the cinema’s best shot scenes, Ruth Gordon’s Minnie rushes to Rosemary’s bedroom to phone Manhattan’s top Obstetricians. From a filmmaking perspective, this entire scene is one elegant and fascinating manipulation of the medium. Faker’s camera only allows us to see a bit of Minnie as she makes this call. I dare a viewer of this film on a big screen to successfully fight the urge to tilt his/her head to see what is going on in Rosemary’s bedroom.

Minnie makes a phone call and we all try to see what's really going on as she speaks into the phone... Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Minnie makes a phone call and we all try to see what’s really going on as she speaks into the phone…
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Masterful and perplexing: we are now officially and fully immersed in Rosemary’s paranoia.

The truly magical aspect that has helped Rosemary’s Baby to not only remain valid but alarmingly disturbing is the fact that perception of reality is so skewed that we are never fully certain that Rosemary’s paranoia is valid. Upon the first viewing of Polanski’s film, one is likely to walk away with a bit of a chuckle that Rosemary was quite right: She has given birth to The Anti-Christ. All we saw was true.

All of them were witches united to trick Rosemary into being fucked by Satan. 

The true reality solved by Scrabble? Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

The true reality solved by Scrabble?
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

If one watches Rosemary’s Baby again, and watches it a bit closer — something odd emerges.

This creeping idea is one of the reasons this film is a true cinematic masterpiece that refuses to go away from our subconscious. At no point in this horror film is the validity of Rosemary’s paranoia and fear fully confirmed. As the movie pulls us into the final act of the story, the question of whether or not what we are seeing is “correct” or “real” is brought into question. This could all be a fever dream of exhausted and terrified human psyche. Rosemary’s world has been rocked enough to understand how her perceptions of reality might be pushed into subversion.

Adrift in mental and emotional confusion.  Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Adrift in mental and emotional confusion.
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Her husband has essentially raped her while sick, this results in a pregnancy. Hormones surging and her choices and opinions constantly challenged — she soon finds herself in a great deal of pain. Everything in Rosemary’s reality has derailed. Death and darkness seem to envelope her. Her husband is distracted by new career opportunities and possibly some guilt. Whatever the cause he is distant.

Rosemary feels trapped. She must escape. She runs away to her original first choice Obstetrician. A very pregnant woman carrying a heavy suitcase on a record-setting hot Manhattan day arrives to this younger and far more modern doctor’s office. She insists he “save” her and her baby. She spouts a rant about Satanic witches and elaborate plans to harm both her and her baby. She pulls out an old book on the supernatural. The doctor calms her down. She finally relaxes and her official Minnie-hired Obstetrician arrives with her frustrated husband to take her home.

But, she did seem to slip into a dream prior to the “betrayal” of the young doctor.

As we enter the final act of the movie, how reliable is Rosemary’s perception? Every single thing is from her perspective?

Is Rosemary’s reality real? Is this a perspective we can believe and trust? 

Rosemary alone with pain, loss, hurt, rape and her thoughts... Mia Farrow in that doorway Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Rosemary alone with pain, loss, hurt, rape and her thoughts…
Mia Farrow in that doorway
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

There is no clear answer to be found in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. We will never know for sure if she has delivered The Anti-Christ “To 1966! The year One.

This level of unresolved tension doesn’t even need to fully register for the viewer to pick-up on it at some level. The truth of what we see is questionable. Rosemary’s perception (as well as our own) has been altered and put into a state of limited and distorted vision.

What is scarier? The reveal that human fear and paranoia is fully validated or the understanding that we are simply unsure. The fear and paranoia remain unresolved.

Reality or Delusion? Mia Farrow looking into Hell Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Reality or Delusion?
Mia Farrow looking into Hell
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

For years I used to debate this opinion with friends. Everyone seemed split down the middle. Some felt I, myself, was reading too much into the movie. Others agreed.

Finally I was validated when Roman Polanski himself stated that his goal was to present a depiction of human perception skewed to leave the audience wondering if Rosemary was seeing the “truth” or imagining some grand conspiracy.

Warning: TO AVOID ANY SPOILERS RE: TO THE FILM, LYLE, DO NOT READ FURTHER.

Which brings me to Stewart Thorndike’s 2014 but newly-released film, Lyle. As much a tribute to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as it is a low-fi re-working of the same sort of diabolical idea, Thorndike and her Cinematographer, Grant Greenberg, have created an intense psychological horror film. Or so we might think…

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Greenberg’s camerawork is simple, yet carefully articulated. Like William A. Franker, he has paid close attention to perception. Doorways, large open-spaces, halls and angles are all designed to make us look closely. Visual information is provided in a suspect manner. More than a few times in this tightly-edited film, we want to see beyond the boundaries established by Greenberg.

Also of great credit to both he and the film’s director/writer, Stewart Thorndike, Lyle features the best use of a Skype-like call I have ever seen. Limiting the audience view to the shared computers’ perceptions is a brilliant device.

Leah and Lyle are left alone to unpack and fill their day... LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Leah and Lyle are left alone to unpack and fill their day…
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

As any sensible film-buff would expect, Gaby Hoffmann is brilliant in the film’s leading role. As the mother, Leah, Hoffmann delivers a perfectly nuanced and powerful turn toward hope, grief, fear, paranoia, panic, sheer horror, desperation and ultimately rage. Unlike Mia Farrow’s passive Rosemary, there is nothing oppressed about Gabby Hoffman’s Leah. A devoted wife and mother, she fully embraces her role in the family. She also places correct value to her identity and worth.

Yet she senses something “removed” or “distant” regarding her wife. Played by Ingrid Jungermann, June is appears to be the family provider. One gets the feeling that June is either ambivalent about parenting or is deeply upset that the newly pregnant Leah is carrying a girl child. June was clearly hoping for a little boy, but her frustration is both uncomfortable and suspicious.

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Moving into a swank new Brooklyn apartment, Leah loves their new home. She does not love the new landlord. Rebecca Street is the only other actor in this film who can rival Hoffmann’s skills. Street is cast in a role that is somewhat similar to Ruth Gordon’s Minnie. Excepting that Street’s Karen is quite a bit younger. Younger, but not young. Leah is immediately concerned to discover that her landlady who she suspects is entering her 60’s claims to be trying to get pregnant. In fact, before long Leah (and the audience) catch limited glimpses of Karen pregnant and then not but expressing milk through her top.

Like Rosemary, Leah is constantly having to re-evaluate her perception of reality. After suffering the loss of her firstborn child, she is aware that the loss of Lyle has caused an understandably confused and disoriented emotional chain of reactions. As the circumstances around Lyle’s accidental death grow more suspicious to her and as she discovers increasingly worrying information about her home and the people who live in and near it — Leah becomes more than a little paranoid. To Stewart Thorndike’s credit, this film packs a great deal of suspense and tension.

"Help me!" Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

“Help me!”
Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Running just a little over an hour in length, Lyle does not let the audience down. The film is encaging, disturbing, creepy and solidly entertaining. The only issue I noted with this sinister little movie is the director’s decision to fully resolve the paranoia and fears of the lead character. At the moment we discover the validity of the mother’s fears and the fact that she has not been paranoid, the horror of Lyle becomes mutedly blunt. All answers are resolved and Leah is left to do what she must in an attempt to save her child. While Lyle is a potent little film, it loses his grip by giving us too much.

To what point has Grant Greenberg’s cinematography served? Do we feel relieved or all the more dire that Leah’s darkest fears turn out to be true? Lyle leaves the audience with an uncertain future for Leah, but there is no articulated logic to the dark pact with Evil for career success. It isn’t clear.

The aspects of the paranoia that are not fully revealed or explained leave a sort of emotional hole where a cinematic “pay-off” should have been. The intention is unclear, but not the human perspective. In what felt like the shaping of horror reveals itself to be more aligned with a taught thriller minus logic.

Gaby Hoffmann LYLE Stewart Thorndike, 2014 Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Gaby Hoffmann
LYLE
Stewart Thorndike, 2014
Cinematography | Grant Greenberg

Unlike Polanski and Frakers’ manipulation of paranoia and character perspective, Lyle has teased the audience. And the emotional result is one of frustration. Lyle is not likely to scare the audience. Instead it plunges us further into darkness without any room for ambiguity. Stewart Thorndike is a flimmaker with a a strong future ahead of her. She has a great deal of skill in telling her story. But the question for me remains, is it more effective to bring a story of paranoia and human fear to fully articulated explanation or better to limit the audiences’ ability to fully know? From my perspective, Lyle gives an unsatisfying ending.

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is an example of a horror film that leaves the audience unsure. Alex R. Johnson’s Two Step fits more toward Thorndike’s Lyle. However, Alex R. Johnson’s film is not intended as a horror film as much as a modulated thriller that escalates far beyond audience anticipation. Within that mode of operation, a fully resolved ending makes sense.

Perhaps the best example of current cinema that illustrates the idea of ambiguity is Alex Ross Perry’s polarizing examination of identity and insanity, Queen of Earth.

Where does reality end and insanity begin? Welcome to Surrealism... Katherine Waterston & Elisabeth Moss Queen of Earth Alex Ross Perry, 2015 Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

Where does reality end and insanity begin? Welcome to Surrealism…
Katherine Waterston & Elisabeth Moss
Queen of Earth
Alex Ross Perry, 2015
Cinematography | Sean Price Williams

While this film may not be a straight-up horror film, it does depict the most horrific aspect of being human: Insanity. The idea of not knowing when what is perceived is “reality” or “delusion” is oddly effective. Much like Mia Farrow’s Rosemary, Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston will be forever stuck in a sort of nightmarish mire of rage, distrust and warped perspective.

We do not have all the pieces of their puzzles.

It fascinates.

It pulls us further into the ideas of the films.

Most of all, these stories of human frailty, fear and possibly insanity stick with us. The ambivalence sears into our shared subconscious. 

Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

Life is a mystery and is forever full of “WTF” moments. It is in those moments where we are least sure and are forced to go into “full alert” that the uncertainty of our realities become the most worrying.

In a strange way, Roman Polanski’s Art Horror remind us of life.

At the ready to attack, but still unsure... Mia Farrow Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968 Cinematography | William A. Fraker

At the ready to attack, but still unsure…
Mia Farrow
Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski, 1968
Cinematography | William A. Fraker

They jolt us into the present of our mind. And we are forever a bit unsure.

Matty Stanfield, 10.1.15

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.

"Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness." Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981

“Murder. Evil. Infidelity. Madness.”
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981

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.”

The Absence of Faith or The Conflict of having it?  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The Absence of Faith or The Conflict of having it?
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

"Do you believe in God?" Isabelle Adjani appears to moan to the heavens than to pray.  Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Do you believe in God?”
Isabelle Adjani appears to moan to the heavens than to pray.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

Isabelle Adjani  Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

One of if not the most deeply disturbing moments in cinematic history.  Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

One of if not the most deeply disturbing moments in cinematic history.
Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

"I'm afraid of myself, because I'm the maker of my own evil." Isabelle Adjani with knife Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I’m afraid of myself, because I’m the maker of my own evil.”
Isabelle Adjani with knife
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

"Because you say "I" for me."  Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Because you say “I” for me.”
Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

Anna coldly discusses philosophy as she pushes a child to hold Allongé. She seems unaware of the childs sounds of pain and horror. It appears to be a ballet lesson, but it sounds like a rape.  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Anna coldly discusses philosophy as she pushes a child to hold Allongé. She seems unaware of the childs sounds of pain and horror. It appears to be a ballet lesson, but it sounds like a rape.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

"There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you." Isabelle Adjani shares a secret with Heinz Bennent Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“There is nothing to fear except God, whatever that means to you.”
Isabelle Adjani shares a secret with Heinz Bennent
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

"Love isn't something you can just switch from channel to channel." Sam Neill contemplates the loss of his wife. Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“Love isn’t something you can just switch from channel to channel.”
Sam Neill contemplates the loss of his wife.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

"For the first time, you look vulgar to me." A married couple on the verge of... Possession  Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“For the first time, you look vulgar to me.”
A married couple on the verge of…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

No matter where they go, the wall separates Anna and Mark from potential.  Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography

No matter where they go, the wall separates Anna and Mark from potential.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Bruno Nuytten | Cinematography

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.

"I can't exist by myself..." Doppelgänger or projection? Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I can’t exist by myself…”
Doppelgänger or projection?
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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’aimerThat 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.

Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani & Sam Neill
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

"He's very tired. He made love to me all night." Isabelle Adjani and her spousal replacement. Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten The Creature by Carlo Rambaldi

“He’s very tired. He made love to me all night.”
Isabelle Adjani and her spousal replacement.
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten
The Creature by Carlo Rambaldi

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.

Love struggles against  tierney Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Love struggles against tierney
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

The Oppressed and Repressed invert against themselves. Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

The Oppressed and Repressed invert against themselves.
Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

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.

Conformity at all cost... Isabelle Adjani & Another Victim Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Conformity at all cost…
Isabelle Adjani & Another Victim
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Before you step into the experience of Possession, this might assist you.

"I'm afraid of myself" Isabelle Adjani Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“I’m afraid of myself”
Isabelle Adjani
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Are you ready or not?