Andrzej Zulawski's exploration of a divorce goes for the gut


Directed by Andrzej Zulawski

At the Charles Theatre June 2, 4, and 7

The thing about Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film Possession is, well . . . the thing. The thing in the corner. The thing in the bed. The unnameable. The indescribable. The glistening, utterly uncanny, unrivaled-before-or-since thing that qualifies Possession, on technical grounds, as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and one of the most undersung. (The fact that it’s been unavailable on home video in the States for much of the DVD era certainly contributes to the latter title.) But the other thing about Zulawski’s fever dream of a film is that it doesn’t really need the thing to unnerve, to horrify, to read as horror, or to captivate.

Two things are established in the very first shots. One, the film is set in late-Cold War Berlin, the still-intact Berlin Wall ever in the background. Two, married couple Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) aren’t getting along. He returns home from a long business trip, hoping for reconciliation; she doesn’t even let him get off the sidewalk out front before she makes clear she’s not having it. She won’t, or can’t, explain why, and he can’t take it. She disappears, coming and going from their apartment without warning. He dissolves into unshaven despondency before evidence of another man stokes his hurt and rage. Screaming fights ensue, and not the relatively polite shouting matches of most domestic dramas—we’re talking vocal cords shredded, furniture up-ended, blows thrown, eventually a bit of blood.

These battles are pitched to the febrile tenor of the film itself. Reportedly Zulawski was going through his own painful divorce at the time, and for all its stylization, Possession feels like the product of bare nerves and sleepless nights. True, Zulawski and cinematographer Bruno Nuytten offer a series of elegantly divided frames—shooting at the angle joining hallways or rooms, parking Neill and Adjani on perpendicular cafe banquettes—but just as often the camera is roaming in fleet parabolic tracking shots or lunging from room to room on Neill’s heels, even at one point chasing him full-tilt down several flights of stairs. The use of wide-angle lenses often isolates the characters at the center of the frame and makes them loom uncomfortably. This is angry, emotional filmmaking. (One unremembered wag once referred to the first hour as “Scenes From a Marriage on meth.”)

Yet, the agitated camerawork pales in comparison to the performances. Creepy Neill is perfect for overheated Mark, his baseline low-temperature calm serving as a control rod for keeping the character’s bundle of anguished tics (e.g. exaggerated rocking in a chair, on a couch, etc.) just this side of caricature. It’s more difficult to identify with Anna as a character (and she definitely fails the Bechdel Test), but Adjani does a fine distracted glaze-over and when the forces at work on her take over—whether emotional tumult or . . . other forces—she holds nothing back. After visiting a church and quietly supplicating before a crucifix (a symbol of a pain that seems comparable to hers at that point in the film), she heads into the metro and absolutely, abjectly loses her shit. The central unblinking take of the scene stretches for minutes as Adjani empties her soul on the grimy concrete. The fact that the sequence concludes with her crouched, trembling, extruding a puddle of blood and other fluids (milk, semen, maybe demonic ichor?) can’t invalidate its shocking performative power. It’s difficult to think of even a handful of actresses working today who could hope to approach it.

There’s more, so much more. Mark and Anna have a young son (Michael Hogben), and when new single-dad Mark takes over school drop-off duties, he discovers that the boy’s teacher (Adjani) is a ringer for his soon-to-be-ex and they spark up a relationship. Oh, and then there’s Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), the comically stereotypical Teutonic rival for Anna’s affections. But, of course, Heinrich is no real match for the significant Other that has captured Anna’s soul in a spare, crumbling love nest overlooking the Berlin Wall (that again). For all of its intuitive power and Argento-like irrationality, Possession’s crazed plot actually coheres somewhat as the final reel unspools, bringing with it what might just be the end of the world.

So, yes, it’s a horror film, as the thing eventually makes plain. But it is also a film that brims with all the debilitating hurt, anger, vulnerability, callousness, and bitter recrimination that the process of real-life divorce can bring, all explored on multiple levels. And it’s a horror in that sense too.

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