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TCM Underground
Remind Me

Possession (1981)

A film "belonging to no wave," in the words of its director, a film that, deceptively, "wears the mask" of a horror film while also dipping into Cold War espionage and domestic melodrama, Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (1981) arises from, and stays terrifyingly within, an experience of traumatic loss. For Zulawski, the real-life rupture that drove him to make the film was a double one: the turbulent end of his marriage with actress Malgorzata Braunek and his exile from his native Poland, following the authorities' halting of the production of his science-fiction film On the Silver Globe in 1978. The success of Possession is undoubtedly due to the director's fidelity to his own experience of these separations, as he registered them psychically, physically, and intellectually.

Zulawski transposed this experience into a multilayered fiction about a Berlin couple who are driven apart, and driven to madness, after the wife takes a lover. American writer Frederic Tuten, who was brought in to work with the director on the script of his first English-language film, thought Zulawski's 20-page outline "an incredibly fresh and madly surrealist story" and quickly came to admire the director's "complete professionalism." For his part, Zulawski saw Possession not only as a personal story, but as an allegory of Communism. "Evil for us in the Communist countries had a very material face," he explained to filmmaker/writer Daniel Bird. "You could pinpoint it. You could say, 'This is evil. The system is evil. The layers of fiction, lying, this ideology which is the contrary of its realization, this is evil.'" Zulawski chose Berlin as the setting for the story because of its proximity to the Communist world, shooting much of the film right along the Wall, in the Kreuzberg section of West Berlin.

To play his tormented heroine, Zulawski and his producer, Marie-Laure Reyre, first approached Isabelle Adjani. When the actress's management company turned it down, the filmmakers turned to Judy Davis, whose performance in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) had impressed Zulawski. For the male lead, Zulawski chose Sam Neill, the co-star of My Brilliant Career. While Davis was hesitating over whether to take the role in Possession, Adjani decided she wanted it after all. It was a choice she would not regret: Adjani's performance won her the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1981, followed by the French Best Actress C├ęsar in 1982.

As Kim Newman writes, Zulawski "encourages his stars to attack their roles with a kind of stylized hysteria rare outside the Japanese theater." From the beginning of the film, Adjani and Neill perform in ways that unsettle the viewer and make it impossible to identify with their characters. It's not merely that the couple are unbalanced or mad: the actors themselves appear to be dangerously over the edge. One of the undoubted highlights of the film is a shocking scene in which Adjani freaks out in a corridor of a Berlin U-bahn station. Part psychodrama, part avant-garde dance piece, part no-holds-barred exercise in horror and abjection, the scene is one of the most compellingly compulsive moments in cinema. As the narrative proceeds - and in this, Possession is most unusual - its people become more, not less, complicated and difficult to grasp, even becoming doubled, as both the Neill and the Adjani characters mysteriously acquire alter egos.

The "surrealistic, clean quality" Zulawski wanted for the film was promoted by Bruno Nuytten's fluid lighting and swirling, probing Steadicam work by camera operator Andrzej Jaroszewicz. An important part of the visual design of Possession is the monster that Adjani's character - in a motif reminiscent of David Cronenberg's 1979 The Brood - seemingly gives birth to, and which becomes both her lover and the fatal secret that awaits anyone unwise enough to enter her Kreuzberg apartment (a motif that recalls Roman Polanski's 1965 Repulsion). To create the monster, Zulawski called on Carlo Rambaldi, whose impressive list of special-effects credits went back from Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) to Alberto de Martino's Perseo l'invincibile (1963, also known as Medusa against the Son of Hercules), a peplum that featured a tentacular Gorgon similar in appearance to (though less atmospherically lit than) the one he constructed for Possession.

Possession ran into trouble in the United Kingdom, where the government placed the film on the infamous "video nasties" list, and in the United States, where it was cut by more than a third. These problems only added to the cult luster that the film has acquired over the years. Now available in its original form, the film is a one-of-a-kind work, audacious, nutty, disturbing, and not easy to forget.

Producer: Marie-Laure Reyre
Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Screenplay: Andrzej Zulawski, Frederic Tuten
Cinematography: Bruno Nuytten
Film Editing: Marie-Sophie Dubus, Suzanne Lang-Willar
Art Direction: Holger Gross
Music: Andrzej Korzynski
Cast: Isabelle Adjani (Anna/Helen), Sam Neill (Mark), Heinz Bennent (Heinrich), Margit Carstensen (Margit), Johanna Hofer (Heinrich's mother), Carl Duering (Detective), Shaun Lawton (Zimmermann).
C-127m. Closed Captioning. Letterboxed. Descriptive Video.

by Chris Fujiwara