Thursday, January 20, 2011

Possessed of Possession (1981)

(minor spoilers ahead)

In Mike’s recent post he included this:

When realism was invented, its writers were being ambitious and wild. They were trying to do something big and crazy. They weren't trying to “master the basics first,” they were writing the most beautiful things they could possibly imagine.

And though, obviously, this statement was being made in relation to creative writing pedagogy, it was in my mind a statement just as applicable to the films—the excessive narrative forms—of director Andrzej Zulawski. And especially his 1981 film Possession. Both the most perfectly realized example of a horror film that I’ve ever seen (i.e. = most literally horrifying) AND one of the most startling, revelatory, resistant versions of what is commonly referred to as the “art-house” film—a real head trip.

Watching it for the first time reminded me what I consider to be the best kinds of experimental lit—I remember thinking that any successful film version of, say, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood couldn’t help but look a lot like this film. And, in my experience, Zulawski’s films share at least one thing with Barnes’ out-and-out weird masterpiece:

Though they tend to be mentioned, referenced, name-checked, they turn out, much less often, to be actually seen or read. (Certainly Zulawski’s public persona does little to encourage new fans; this is a man who is as [mildly] famous for quotes as he is for his films, quotes like: “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.” What does that do but make him sound like a pretentious, self-important prick? An acquaintance recently put it this way over email: “He [Zulawski] strikes me as excitable and excessive, sometimes in a wonderful way, sometimes in a somewhat trying way (I like excess as a rule, but often AZ seems to stretch).” Which is as true a statement about his films as any. Except, in Possession’s case, the film is still the film is still the film—the film, still for me, persists.)

MUBI offers this summary of the plot:

Possession is a 1981 cult movie directed by Andrzej Żuławski. Mark (Sam Neill) returns home to Berlin to find his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is leaving him for unclear reasons. He initially suspects an affair and hires detectives to track her, but gradually discovers clues that something far stranger is afoot. Instead, his wife leaves him and her lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). What follows is a series of horrific, compelling and surreal events. The film was very controversial when first released and heavily edited for distribution in the United States. After an initial limited theatre release in the United Kingdom, Possession was banned as one of the notorious Video Nasties, although released uncut on DVD in 1999. It gradually developed a minor cult following among arthouse aficionados.

I.e., what starts out ostensibly as the story of a dysfunctional (and like liquid-dissolving) marriage between Mark (Neill) and Anna (Adjani) becomes, by about 10 or 12 minutes in, a relentlessly unfolding personal apocalypse. Adjani’s oft-discussed performance exudes, advances on the screen, in orders of magnitude. Her 4-minute single-take transformation in the infamous subway scene is nearly indescribable, both in terms of her performance and in its significance to the plot. (On subsequent viewings it is tempting to say the scene is about a miscarriage, or [and? also?] about another character’s birth, indeed the film’s titular MONSTER.)

Zulawski has commented that the reason so many of his films contain an apocalypse stems from the biographical beginnings of his own life—from being born into, under, Soviet control. His debut feature, The Third Part of the Night, takes up this theme most explicitly—not only adapting its title from the end of days so mysteriously enumerated in the Book of Revelation, but even going so far as to use Revelation’s passages to frame (if not adequately unpack) the film’s beginning and end.

In Possession, the apocalypse unfolding inside the film’s structure is twofold: One, it is the moment-by-moment, off-the-charts, always-exploding (or about to) absolute MANIA of the film—its mounting action, piled-on acting, a phantasmagoria layered frame by frame. I.e., this:

Or this:

Or this:

The other form the film’s apocalypse takes is more deeply embedded, lodged and latent in its very running time as DREAD, as a ponderous fear of THE END (it reminds me of that line from “Hey Bulldog”: “Some kind of innocence is/ measured out in years”)

The first kind of apocalypse is typified by the startlingly reckless, insistently depraved acts carried out by the characters in the gross guise of the plot, carried out with cruel, even demoniac flourishes and tics. See Mark’s coercion of a taxi driver into an almost certain death, a kamikaze attack by car on police officers in the hopes of distracting them long enough for Anna—by this point in the film unapologetically, fundamentally deranged—to escape their net.

Or, even better, one of Mark and Anna’s many domestic disturbances, this one in a cafe early in the film, during which they discuss what to do about their son Bob when they split. In short order this tense, unpleasant conversation turns nuclear, on public display much screaming, flailing, flinging of cups and chairs and plates—Mark barreling into one piece of furniture after another in an unchecked fit, stopped only by the entire kitchen staff pouring into the room to tackle him.

Anna’s speech just before Mark’s full-on freak out—as well as the many, concentric conversations the two engage in—serves not as ironic comment on traditional morality, but instead as a naming of their apocalypse, a putting into words of how barren, fallow, hollow their moral-ethical universe has become. (It is distressing at times, especially in relation to their son Bob, to try and imagine Mark and Anna before this—as wife and husband, as lovers, as one-time intimate friends.)

Or, another example, when Mark’s double—the use of dark twins and doubles is one of the film’s amorphous, unresolved mysteries—employs his palpable ability to corrupt. He malevolently encourages a bystander—wide-eyed, stereotypically “innocent” and plain—to fire indiscriminately at a gang of approaching men. (The fact that she is blond and has one leg in a cast makes her an unacknowledged double of another character in the film, Anna’s best friend Margie [those familiar with Fassbinder will recognize Margrit Carstensen here]. The fact that this unnamed woman’s role was originally much more fleshed out in the script—she was to be the new wife of Anna’s ex-husband—further situates her in a sort of narrative limbo, a leftover from a previous draft, an excised, deleted character somehow appearing here nonetheless.) Mark’s double presses the pistol into her hand, guides her aim with his own, reacts to the startled but darkly thrilled look on her face with a knowing nod, a look, of his own. A look like: “Eh? Wasn’t pulling the trigger just the best? Wouldn’t it be even better to indeed do it again?”

The second apocalypse comes as the film’s physical end. We find Anna’s lighter, brighter double—she is Bob’s elementary school teacher, an inexplicable dead ringer for Mark’s wife that he initially suspects to be some sort of “trick”—we find her babysitting Bob while his parents are away. In her apartment, in the middle of making him a meal, someone knocks. Bob (whose understated performance acts as a kind of inadequate counterweight to rest of the film—he who has quietly tolerated the film’s undercurrent of dread always lapping at him) Bob begs her not to answer the door. When she playfully refuses, he flees the table, flees the scene, up the stairs while doing scales to try to ward off what he senses will happen next. As he runs he keeps repeating his plea up and down in a drone: “Dooonnnt oppppeeeennn! Dooonnnt oppppeeeennn!”

He flees to the bathroom, to an already-full tub (earlier in the film he had taken delight in showing his parents how long he could hold his breath underwater), instinctively preferring to fling himself facedown in the tub—to apparently drown himself—rather than meet his father’s dark double still imploring at the door (through its frosted glass we see his silhouette, his elongate hands and arms poring over the glass’ surface as if looking for a crack). This his father’s dark double whom he’s never met. Some monster he cannot comprehend. Instead, like an animal getting a whiff, he registers, processes, retreats from this preliterate stimulus, him not having the words but still knowing as sure as shit: His parents’ apocalypse has come finally for him:

The end.