photo by Maureen Mroczek Morris
Introduction to Andrzej Żuławski's Possession (1981)
by Julian Myers
It is my great pleasure and difficult task, now, to introduce to you the 1981 film Possession, directed by Andrzej Żuławski. Let me start with a quote from Żuławski about the film.
“To please the majority is the requirement of the Planet Cinema. As far as I'm concerned, I don't make a concession to viewers, these victims of life, who think that a film is made only for their enjoyment, and who know nothing about their own existence.”
This sounds something like the narcissistic proclamation of an avant-gardist. I want, at least in part, to argue with it. For Possession is no dry exercise in extremity. The film is visually ravishing. And it moves forward with a surreal velocity as compulsively, convulsively watchable as more conventional directors. In his commentary on the film, nothing less than James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic is a touchstone—more for its timing than its central love story, it must be said, which Żuławski describes as “ludicrous,” but the reference stands. It’s worth noting, too, Żuławski’s unpretentious pitch to his American producer: “Possession is a film about a woman who fucks an octopus.” To which his American producer replied, with gusto, “Let’s do it! How much money do you need?”
That his film addresses itself to viewers described as “victims of life”—this, however, is something worth elaborating further, alongside the real conditions of victimhood from which Żuławski composed the film.
Some history will bring the director’s attenuated victimhood into view. Possession was Żuławski’s fourth film, preceded by The Third Part of the Night and Devil—films made in Poland, in Polish, with Polish actors, funded by the state. After the relative critical success of Third Part, Devil, an allegory of the suppression of the Polish student movement in the late 1960s, in the grotesque register of Heironymous Bosch, was banned by the Polish government, and not seen for sixteen years.
Offered the choice of leaving cinema and leaving Poland, Żuławski chose to leave Poland. He went to France, where in the mid-1960s he had studied Political Science at the Sorbonne, and made the film, L'important c'est d'aimer, which was both a critical and commercial hit, in relative terms. With a new authority and fame, he returned to Poland in 1975 to work on a version of his great-uncle Jerzy Żuławski’s book On the Silver Globe. But again the government interfered, stopping production and confiscating his materials. He resumed Silver Globe in 1986, but the aborted project was hard to salvage and the film was never exactly what he wanted it to be.
In the wake of this dispossession, he left again to the West. He wrote the script for Possession in 1978, in New York City, during the aftermath of this second disaster. Indeed, alongside its central story of love, the primary subject of the film would seem to be exile, and the feelings of displacement, alienation and miscommunication that exile provokes. This is registered, in Possession, by a wild disorientation of place. The whole film seems to be lurching precipitously around tiny corridors, cramped apartments and compressed streets.
The film was also written out of the personal collapse of his marriage to Małgorzata Braunek, a luminously beautiful actress, and one of the stars of Third Part. If Possession is a meditation on exile, its other primary force comes from the unnerving, enigmatic, explosive meltdown of the relationship between its two characters, Anna and Mark, played by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill.
The choice of actors emphasized their double alienation: Adjani is Algerian French, and Sam Neill is from New Zealand, and the film takes place in West Berlin, this strange little claustrophobic zone. Their personal “exile” from one another, that is to say, is refracted and multiplied by cultural difference. The effect is that the characters are completely estranged, from each other and their surroundings, and barely able to communicate with one another. “We spend our lives not facing each other,” Żuławski says, and indeed his characters often seem to be speaking around corners or with their backs to one another.
Both actors are fantastic and unforgettable. Adjani emerged as a major force in this moment. She won a prize at Cannes for her performance in Possession, and she's almost unspeakably beautiful and compelling in it, even as spasmodic as she becomes. There’s something to be said for Żuławski’s direction of women actors—they’re routinely at their very best in his films—and Adjani most of all. “I came from the French cinematic school of real thinking,” Żuławski says, “and I believe that, with few exceptions, acting is a female occupation.” His filmography—and in particular L’important c’est d’aimer and Une femme publique—attests to this. But Neill, too, is incredible here, and it is his strange performance that holds the film together. He is a volatile stick-man: weird, sweaty, beaky, and lurid. You can't take your eyes off him.
Two more characters are played by Germans, who are no more at home than Mark or Anna. Heinz Bennent, fresh off Truffaut's Last Metro, plays a “karate-Zen” guru. “I hate this guy,” Żuławski says, bluntly. “He’s better at everything than Sam Neill. But he’s totally wrong as well. He’s dangerous like poison.” Another character is played by the wonderful Margit Carstensen, who starred in numerous Fassbinder movies, notably Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant; she'd just been filming Berlin Alexanderplatz. Both put in fascinating turns.
But they’re nothing compared to the strange, hypnotic performances of the main two, who right from the start are acting in a hyper-charged manner: amped up, hysterical, agitated, weirdly avid. Perhaps this is a technique related to radical forms of dance-theater pursued by Jerzy Grotowski and Ryszard Cieślak in Poland in the 1970s. But whatever its origin, their performances seem, from the very beginning, to externalize and materialize their emotional turmoil in extreme ways.
Neill’s character seems to work for the CIA—though Żuławski says he originally intended the film to be set in Detroit, with Neill as a factory worker in an auto plant—what a different movie this might have been! He has just gotten back to Berlin. From where, is never quite explained. And since he’s been gone, something has gone very wrong with his marriage. His wife is cheating on him—this we learn in the first minutes. What soon becomes clear is that something more sinister is going on as well.
The details of this I will leave to the film. But what emerges is a pained portrait of a woman's sexual dissatisfaction and hysteria, and a man's jealous, violent rage and bewilderment at her desire. This is a trauma so mutually disfiguring that both partners end up being replaced by horrifying versions of each other. Indeed, after seeing the final cut of Possession, Adjani—who hadn’t watched the “rushes,” the daily shots during production, and so didn’t know during in the process how she was being pictured—disparaged the film as “psychological pornography.”
This charge speaks to the film’s raw emotions, and suggests that something more than mere “horror,” in its “Planet Cinema” sense, is going on here. Indeed, Żuławski describes Possession as “the story of his life,” an autobiography, exposing with self-lacerating candor his personal problems and misbehavior with a partner that he dearly loved. Żuławski is, he admits, a “strong believer in couples and marriages and children.” The film shows these beliefs under enormous, unbearable pressure and distortion. But, nevertheless, we begin in reality, he says. This is an ordinary situation. A marriage is ending.
But increasingly, a second level or order is introduced, gradually overwhelming the first. An ordinary story becomes a surreal fable. It gains along the way a mythic dimension. Certainly Possession acquires in its second half a sort of inscrutable dream-logic. This mythic dimension, Żuławski asserts, however leads us not to pure fantasy, but to a kind of deeper truth of human relations.
“Every possible theory,” he says, “every way of orchestrating life: all of this is wrong. But what is left? Individualism, or anarchy? No. What is left is human decency. All good films are about morals. This film is about morals.”
These are strong words about movie concerning a woman who fucks an octopus. But I think they attempt to answer Adjani’s misgiving about her own brilliant performance. Far from pornography, Żuławski answers, this is the task of any cinema worth its salt, and what morality and human decency truly demands: to face up to our own separation and self-delusion, to traverse the phantasmagoria of our pain, and not to look away.
And so, my fellow “victims of life,” here is Possession.