Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Author’s note: After reading Soiled Sinema’s brilliant analysis of Possession, I decided to
Directing a film based on your personal experiences is one thing. To convey your deepest thoughts and emotions in an audacious manner is another thing. Leaving your audiences feeling mentally raped is to be Andrzej Zulawski.
Possession is a voyage into one’s darkest emotions. The film stars Isabelle Adjani as Anna, a dysphoric housewife married to Mark (played by Sam Neill), a white-collar worker. They have a son, Bob, a boy whose favorite pastime is scuba diving in the bathtub. After returning home to his beloved wife and son in Berlin, Mark’s dream of a picture-perfect family is shattered when Anna decides to end their marriage. Through Margit (Fassbinder actress Margit Carstensen), Anna’s only friend, Mark finds out about his wife’s paramour, a preachy, dope-happy middle-aged man by the name of Heinrich (a dopey yet engaging Heinz Bennent). Turns out, Anna hasn’t been in touch with Heinrich since Mark’s arrival. Who/what could be Anna’s reason for leaving behind her family and lover?
Divorce from sanity and faith is the core of Possession. Andrzej Zulawski was successful in dealing with that subject. In fact, he himself was in the midst of his own divorce when he wrote the film. It’s a great break-up movie. Mark is a character who’s willing to accept his wife’s perverted ways even though she neglects him over and over again. His heart still breaks whenever he sees his wife crying and hyperventilating in their bathroom, but she just can’t help but leave him anyway. Isn’t that a perfect portrait of heartbreak and frustration? (Mark’s plight is even more frustrating than watching Channing Tatum “act.”) Through Mark’s predicament, Zulawski asks the audiences how far this irked man would go to win his wife back.
Slowly losing his morality and his faith in God, Mark feeds his letdown by sleeping with Bob’s teacher, Helen (also played by Adjani). Helen is the exact opposite of Anna. She usually wears white dresses, while Anna is generally clad in dark blue garb. The color of these characters’ clothes is an allegory of their personality. Zulawski made sure that every single detail in this film has something to do with the characters and their predicaments. Helen is Mark’s ideal wife. She does the household chores, tells bedtime stories to Bob, and is there when he needs her.
At the heart of Anna and Mark’s hysterical encounters is Bob, who knew from the start that his parents are not going to end up like Cinderella and Prince Charming. Bob is an important character because he represents the audience. We see and feel most of the film’s context through his eyes. If not for Bob’s existence, I don’t know if I’m going to see Possession the way that I see it.
Possession is not about who is good and who is bad. (Virtually all of the characters are neither.) It’s about how these people become the prey of their own monster. How they become “possessed” by their own evil. How they struggle to deal with overwhelming events that occur in their God-given lives. The film aims to show its audiences that ignorance is, indeed, bliss. How it’s better to not know anything at all. Mark spends the first half of the film obsessing in finding out who the object of his jealousy is. He eventually gets to see his wife’s “lover” later on, a slimy competition that would add more bruise to his wounded being.
Possession is set in Berlin during the tumultuous Cold War. The film’s setting is a perfect backdrop for Zulawski’s mindf*ck illustration of love gone nuts. The frigid Berlin wall becomes one of the vital characters in the film. It acts like a trap that the main characters fall into.
While watching Possession, one can’t help but compare it to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a 1965 film featuring Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a young woman suffering a mental illness. Zulawski’s film is reminiscent of Polanski’s first English-language film. Anna and Carol are both caught in the web of their insanity. They involuntarily commit crimes during their mental breakdown. Some of the camera shots are quite similar too. But it would be unfair to Zulawski to say that Possession is a photocopy of Repulsion. It’s not. Possession has its own magic. What’s that magic? You have to
see experience it for yourself.
Zulawski did a great job in choosing Isabelle Adjani as Anna. The legendary actress is at the pinnacle of her beauty in this film. It’s painful for Sam Neill’s character (and for the audience as well) to see such a breathtaking visage destroying herself. Zulawski was able to manipulate Adjani’s beauty as an instrument of Mark’s agony. After watching this film, I came to realize that Anna is one of the most underrated femme fatales in the history of cinema. Zulawski successfully tackled the subject of existential angst by bringing out career-defining performances from
both Adjani and Neill. (Adjani’s career-defining performance is Camille Claudel.)
The film is in English, but the accent is thick. (Adjani is French and Neill is from New Zealand.) It’s much better to watch this film with subtitles because Zulawski speaks through his characters’ philosophical words.
Possession mainly caters to esoteric group of film enthusiasts who can stomach Zulawski’s gut-filled dish, and to brave men and women who are willing to be plundered of their own sanity. (Luckily for me, I still have my sanity intact after watching this film.)
Good luck! 🙂
EDIT: After watching this film so many times, I’ve come to realize that the performances and the film itself are (usually) campy.
EDIT 2.0 (05/14/2014):
But, Possession is still haunting and psychologically challenging† in its campy — if not OTT — sort of way.
†I meant that as a compliment.