Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 art-house horror film POSSESSION lands in Baltimore for three screenings over the next week as part of The Revival Series at The Charles Theater. It’s not a film for everyone, especially not the faint of heart. But MFF director of programming Eric Allen Hatch cites the film as a favorite, combining some of the best elements of such dark and brooding filmmakers as Kubrick, Fassbinder, Cronenberg, and Breillat. In celebration of the restored, uncut 35mm print of the film finally landing in town, he asked some MFF filmmaker alum and Baltimore-based culture writers who have been affected by the film to share their thoughts.
********NOTE: Minor SPOILERS and unfettered language follow***********
KATE LYN SHEIL, actress (SUN DON’T SHINE, V/H/S, THE COMEDY, SILVER BULLETS)
POSSESSION changed the way I thought about performance in film. Isabelle Adjani is so believably explosive in every scene; swinging recklessly from performance art to painfully personal direct address. The entire film feels very dangerous, in the best possible way, and also happens to contain some of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen on screen. Go see this movie! Even if you hate it, it’ll be a worthwhile experience.
JOHN BERNDT, Baltimore cultural force of nature (RED ROOM, HIGH ZERO, BERNDT GROUP)
Zulawski’s POSSESSION is exactly what every narrative film should be from my perspective: A remake of Antonioni’s RED DESERT as if directed by David Cronenberg and shot in 80’s Berlin, with an ambiguous and vertiginous craziness that borders on unique irresponsibility. For instance, Isabelle Adjani having a miscarriage in the subway (one of the greatest scenes ever shot); creeping things that seem more at home in the first ALIEN film; Sam Neil going berserk in a rocking chair. Add to it an unforgettably sleazy German guru named “Heinrich” who evokes the best of Klaus Kinski and Brother Theodore at once without a trace of humor, and you have a film that flawlessly, effortless makes no sense and is thoroughly turgid and creepy for 127 minutes without being boring or lapsing into self-parody—a movie that can only expand your mind, and, well, make you feel weird.
There is no classification for Possession– that would mean order, boundaries, rules.
There is no order when you’ve got the devil inside.
If you’d like to meet the devil—and I do have a strange fascination with meeting the beast—go home and play a record backwards and draw pentagrams with marker on your floor and read Faust.
If you’d like to wildly make love to the devil– go see Possession.
It is one of the most influential works for me in its tenor and ability to transcend logic… yet it disturbingly makes sense…
I was trying to end with a sentence that summed up its influence, but that would be too logical.
LINDSAY RASPI, STUDENT, POSTCOLONIAL FEMINIST THEORY
“Possession by Andrzej Zulawski: Histrionics, Surveillance, and Sex”
Possession validates the histrionics and explores the shattered subjectivities that arise when relationships fail. I’ve read the “histrionics” framing of Possession in another review, I don’t remember who wrote it, but it really hit me personally so I’m adhering to it. Having a split subjectivity, that of being both the subject and the object of one’s own existence, the do-er and the done to, the private and the watched, the surveilled and the self-policed, is a familiar phenomena of embodiment. Zulawski uses Cold War-era Berlin as a grey backdrop, the postmodern police state in which omniscience itself is problematic, and all the colors and moods of identity, of existence, are oppressed by the greyness of the eye of the State. Possession exists in the place where divorce meets war. The self is split between its own perception and its knowledge of being perceived, and there is a violence implicit in both ends of this perception. This type of subjectivity can be doubled, or at least magnified, when in a relationship with an other, and Isabelle Adjani’s performance of Anna brutally displays outwardly that inner breaking of glass, slamming of bones, slitting of throats, destruction of restaurants, and various forms of public bleeding that occur within some of us when those relationships fail, and those subjectivities no longer split but literally shatter, becoming other people, self- abusive, bleeding, screaming, homicidal freaks who in the case of Possession have demonic meltdowns on train platforms and give birth to tentacled monsters. To any onlooker this behavior is histrionic. It is thus doubtlessly seen as histrionic to the object-identified self, resulting in an endless cycle of self-conscious and self-aware hysteria, paranoia, panic, and self-inflicted pain. “Histrionic” is a word with a historical and linguistic attachment to women. Anna is desperate, violent, maniacal, cruel, sadistic, masochistic, ridiculous, validation-seeking, neglectful, incoherent, obscene and ultimately selfish but never whiny or insincere. Anna’s behavior takes her figural, inner subjective experience outward, into the literal world. Her miscarriage of faith is both an actual miscarriage and the birth of a monster, a better monster than the options already in place for her. Her histrionics are valid, as those from whom she seeks to free herself have not experienced her without sexual benefit or archetypal male indulgence.
Anna is involved with two men: a seemingly static, stable, gentle husband; and a lascivious, narcissistic lover with more muscle than substance. Though seemingly opposite archetypes, both men are too thoroughly self-impressed with their own neuroses to understand what she is actually up to, and what’s going on in the part of her that is not surveilled by an outer other. All she really wants is to be holed up in a dirty warehouse with a bandage on her throat and a private monster who will fuck her and expect nothing. With no one watching. No police, no children, no husband, no lover, no art, no dancing, no closet, no refrigerator, no groceries, no combing of hair. This woman wants to be left alone to experience her own sex. Is this kind of sex possible in the postmodern police state? Have we been watched, judged, aestheticized, fetishized, and physically tormented by the social construction of relationships to the point that our desires no longer have a home within a realist framework? Must the fantasy of being both alone and having the availability of an accessible state of pleasure be manifest through inhuman form? And if so, how do we keep these forms alive?
LAUREN WOLKSTEIN, FILMMAKER (THE STRANGE ONES, CIGARETTE CANDY)
“LOVE IS THE DRUG”
There’s nothing I admire more than a filmmaker who takes risks to visualize our darkest fears and anxieties. You will never see another film that even compares to the raw performances and visceral filmmaking techniques that Zulawski employs in Possession, the most epic story of obsession.
Zulawski’s Possession lays bare the unfiltered intensity of emotions that people go through during a breakup. As a filmmaker, he is able to transform us into a world where falling out of love feels like the apocalypse. The landscapes in Possession even match the characters’ dismal feelings about each other. This film is probably the most important cautionary tale about addiction.
Being in love is like a drug. And once that drug is taken away from us, we want it back and will go to all lengths in order to do so, even if the other person is not the same person we fell in love with in the first place. This film shows the horrors that happen when someone clings to a love that no longer exists.
It is no surprise to me that Possession is Zulawski’s most personal film. Films are therapy for the soul, and what better way to exert one’s destructive feelings than to do so on the big screen rather than in real life. I happened to be going through a breakup when I first saw Possession, and it struck a nerve. All the difficulties of moving on from a person were outwardly and explicitly exposed on the screen: the ugliness, the horror, the withdrawal, and the feelings of being torn up from the inside. As soon as love is stripped away from us, we try to solve the mystery of how such a thing could occur. At the core, Possession is a mystery about finding out what causes such a love to disappear, but the real horror is ultimately realizing that there is no answer to this impossible question.
There are many films about disintegrating marriages, but none that show the extreme inhumanity of possessive love as much as this film does. As such, the term “possessive love” is an oxymoron because it is clear that love does not exist when someone tries to possess another person, even more so when that person is clearly possessed by someone (or something) else. I won’t even mention what creature possesses Isabelle Adjani in this film— you just have to see for yourself.
This movie has clearly possessed me and is a masterpiece that everyone should see, especially for anyone who has ever gambled on love and lost big time.
For the broken hearted,
But not in an addictive junkie way,