252. POSSESSION (1981)

AKA The Night the Screaming Stops

Recommended

“…Viktor Shklovsky wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too… In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else.”–Daniel Bird

“Nothing wants to bite anymore – they want to lick.”– Andrzej Zulawski, from the Possession commentary track.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Heinz Bennent, Margit Carstensen, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton

PLOT: Mark, an agent for some unspecified agency, returns home to his wife, Anna, and son in Berlin only to find that Anna has taken a lover. She splits her time between her home and her lover; however, Mark still wants her, causing extensive conflict between them. He uncovers a previous affair with a man named Heinrich, but she also left him for another—and finding the identity of her current lover leads to mayhem and a rising body count.

Still from Possession (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Andrzej Zulawski conceived Possession in the wake of several events—the collapse of his marriage to actress Małgorzata Braunek after being allowed to return to Poland from exile after the international success of 1975’s The Most Important Thing Is To Love, and the subsequent production and shutdown of On The Silver Globe and his second exile from Poland.
  • Zulawski originally pitched the film to Paramount Studio head Charlie Bluhdorn, calling it “a movie about a woman who f**ks an octopus.” They passed.
  • The film played at Cannes and Isabelle Adjani won “Best Actress,” sharing the award for her roles in both Possession and Merchant/Ivory’s Quartet.
  • The final film was chopped up by distributors. The U.S. release was notorious for being a total misrepresentation of the movie: the distributor removed about 40 minutes, reshuffled scenes, and added optical effects to play up and sell it as a horror movie. The Australian version made similar cuts. It wasn’t until 2000 that the original version was available to be seen in the U.S.
  • Possession was briefly released in the UK, but on videotape it was later banned as a “video nasty,” a classification intended for extreme horror films with no artistic merit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film with many memorable images, mainly close-ups of the characters in various stages of mania, the one that sticks is of Adjani’s Anna being serviced by something coiled around her… and writhing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink socks; subway miscarriage; Anna’s lover

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It starts out as a domestic drama turned up to 11, which then goes up to 15. The intensity is compelling, especially when most other relationship films at the time went for quiet decorum. Possession throws all that right out the window. And then at the midway point, it drops the bottom out of expectations with the introduction of the Creature.


Possession international release trailer

COMMENTS: There seems to be no major disagreement about Possession joining a list of “weird” anything. The fur begins to fly in the interpretation, as in “WTF was THAT!?!?” As witnessed by Pamela De Graff’s List Candidate write-up for this site a few years ago, not everyone is going to love this film—but there should at least be some respect for it. And, in my opinion, unless one is aware of certain characteristics in Zulawski’s work, Possession will seem to be an incomprehensible mess.

Zulawski states in the DVD commentary that Possession is, at heart, a “story of a woman possessed, not living in the reality of the Communist regime and having a very strange affair,” and that it is rooted in autobiography. He has also mentioned in interviews that the film is a “fairy tale for adults.” In that respect, it’s very similar to what accomplished with Eraserhead, which was “a dream of dark and troubling things” and also had autobiographical elements. Possession is the Polish Eraserhead. Another parallel with Lynch is Zulawski’s description of the film as “a soap opera, pulled into another dimension,” which could also be applied to Lynch’s “Twin Peaks“—a work in some cases misunderstood, but much more successful with the public at large.

As with Lynch’s films, there’s the tendency of critics to want to overanalyze a film that doesn’t provide pat answers and leaves an audience to provide their own interpretations. So, this isn’t a strict analysis/breakdown of Possession—more like a signpost of items to help you enjoy your journey even more.

If you view Zulawski from his first feature film, and then the next, you can see patterns in the seeming chaos: there’s the sweeping camerawork (Bruno Nuytten’s work, aided with camera operator Andrzej Jaroszewicz) and the division/doubling motifs. In Possession the doubling starts in Berlin, which was a divided city at the time (the Berlin Wall is an omnipresent character here). There are several doublings in the characters: Anna and Helen (“bad” and “good”); Mark and a double appearing at the film’s end; and Mark and Anna at a point in the film switching their roles/behavior as Mark at one point seems to catch Anna’s”‘madness.” Even the title has dual meaning, and Anna encompasses both meanings.

What’s not mentioned as much as the hysteria and the creature are the film’s philosophical underpinnings. It is the tale of a marriage breaking up amidst many factors, some internal (which Anna states in the 8mm footage of her teaching a ballet class, and her soliloquy on the twin sisters of “Faith” and “Chance”), some external (the affair with Heinrich, Mark’s absences due to his job). And, like most fairy tales, some factors are visualized to the point of surrealism (the creature and its birth/externalization and transformation, or the mysterious organization that Mark works for).

In terms of the spiritual and political aspects, one reading could be that Anna externalizes her feelings due to living in that divided political climate. Another reading could also be that the occurrences are externalizations of her spiritual needs. In either case, the creature eventually morphs into an image of Mark by movie’s end, and essentially takes his place. By the end—which does appear to be the literal “End,” with the sounds of planes and bombs falling— Mark 2 and Helen are brought together, yet remain separated, just as Mark and Anna have been throughout the film.

possession-1981-still 2

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Possession starts on a hysterical note, stays there and surpasses it as the film progresses… Pic’s mass of symbols and unbridled, brilliant directing meld this disparate tale into a film that could get cult following on its many levels of symbolism and exploitation.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“… [it] has been described as ‘an intellectual horror film.’ That means it’s a movie that contains a certain amount of unseemly gore and makes no sense whatsoever.”–Vincent Canby, New York Times (1983, 80 minute version)

“There are plenty of movies which seem to have been made by madmen. ‘Possession’ may be the only film in existence which is itself mad: unpredictable, horrific, its moments of terrifying lucidity only serving to highlight the staggering derangement at its core.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out

IMDB LINK: Possession (1981)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Other Side of the Wall – Daniel Bird’s 60-minute documentary on the making of Possession

Possession (1981) – Official Trailer – The U.S. release trailer that makes Possession look like a standard horror film

Mondo Vision – Description of the Mondo Vision DVD/Blu-ray release, which contains a lot of incidental information about various cuts of the movie

The Projection Booth – Episode 167: Possession – Mike White, Frederic Tuten and Daniel Bird discuss Possession on the popular podcast

The Genre Mask – Daniel Bird considers Possession as a “genre” film for Electric Sheep

LIST CANDIDATE: POSSESSION (1981) – The original List Candidate write-up for this site, which became our most controversial review

DVD INFO: There have been various post-VHS releases of Possession, the first being an Anchor Bay DVD which fetched high prices when it went out of print, and has since been repackaged with ‘s Shock [AKA Beyond the Door II] (1977) as a “Drive-in Double Feature” (buy). In the last 6 years or so, there have been many overseas versions, both on DVD and Blu-ray… but for my money, the one to get is the long awaited Mondo Vision Blu-ray, in Special (buy) and Limited (sold out) editions. This is Mondo Visions’s first Blu-Ray, although subsequent releases will be in this format. It boasts a new HD transfer approved by the director (which was the reason it took years for this release to come to fruition) with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. This release also ports over the director’s commentary from the original DVD release (featuring Zulawski with Daniel Bird).

Extras include an hour long documentary, “The Other Side of the Wall: The Making of Possession“, by Bird, which includes interviews with Zulawski, co-writer Frederic Tuten, producer Marie-Laure Reyre and camera operator Andrzej Jaroszewicz (who worked with Zulawski on The Devil and On the Silver Globe). There’s also a more recent 35-minute interview with Zulawski and one with the French translator of Zulawski’s novels, Eric Veaux.

The limited edition release includes a CD of Andrzej Korzynski’s score, an 84-page booklet, art cards and reproductions of lobby cards, a Japanese movie flyer reproduction, a certificate of authenticity (2000 units of the Limited edition were produced), and comes in a beautiful custom slipcased box. If you aren’t interested in all the swag, the special edition includes the Blu-Ray disc, a 24-page booklet, and comes in a Digipak.

The UK Region B/2 Second Sight Blu-ray (buy) has no commentary track but boasts a few extras not on the Mondo Vision release, such as a second commentary with co-writer Frederic Tuten and interviews with the composer Andrzej Korzynski and poster artist Barbara Baranowska.

10 thoughts on “252. POSSESSION (1981)”

  1. Not much to add to El Rob’s perceptive review except a few personal recollections. #1, my “indelible image” is actually Adjani’s subway miscarriage, which is the single most deranged and hysterical performance I’ve ever seen by an actress. It stuck with me through the years even more than the creature reveal.

    #2, my initial reaction to the film was similar to the view Pamela gave in her controversial initial review of the film. I saw it on VHS in my 20s and I suspect it was a cut/reshuffled version. Still, the full-length director’s cut doesn’t boast “coherence and continuity” as its main selling point, so I’m not sure the bad cut was entirely responsible for my negative reaction. Though it’s hard to remember exactly why I had a bad impression of the film, I suspect the stylized melodramatic acting had a lot to do with it. Rewatching it years later, I appreciate the film much more—even like it—and there was never any doubt that it was weird enough to make this List. Possession was probably one of about 25 or so films I considered as forming a sort of core canon of this project from the very beginning.

  2. I could’ve sworn this was already in the list. Oh well.

    Agree 100% w/G. Smalley on his “indelible image”. Fifty years on, after I may have forgotten all about the film, I will ALWAYS remember Ms. Adjani’s subway freakout.

    Brrrr.

  3. I have a little theory I’l like to put out there.

    One of the most striking things in a typical Zulawski flick, especially in Possession, is the hysterical overacting. But beyond the bizarre and intense delivery, the actors don’t seem to be reading from any kind of normal script at all. Instead, it’s as if everyone is screaming random lines from a different philosophical treatise or political manifesto. I believe both of these characteristics, the over the top acting and the strange content of the character’s speech (as well as other aspects of Zulawski’s films), can possibly be explained by the influence of Dostoevsky.

    Mikhail Bakhtin explained that “Dostoevsky always represents a person on the threshold of a final decision, at a moment of crisis, at an unfinalizable – and unpredeterminable – turning point for his soul.” This concept of “the threshold” is brought up repeatedly in Bakhtin’s monograph on Dostoevsky (any quotations in this little essay will be from that, unless I explicitly say otherwise). It is a genre construct that is almost as ancient as literature itself – think of the Socratic dialogues, which began as a kind of memoir genre that collected the sayings and conversations of the great philosopher. “But very soon a freely creative attitude toward the material liberated the genre almost completely from the limitations of history and memoir…” An important aspect of this new form of literature is that the main character, Socrates, is placed in an extreme situation, condemned to death by the government of Athens for example, in order to test his philosophy and prove its worth. In other words the hero is imagined at an important turning point, i.e. a threshold.

    To make especially clear that Zulawski was thinking about thresholds, particularly in the sense of an end or a boundary (“the place or point of entering or beginning,” Merriam-Webster) just look to his use of the Berlin Wall as an important symbolic motif.

    There are further points of comparison that help explain the bizarre behavior of Zulwaski’s characters: for example, his “cruelty,” his apparent need to drive his characters to the absolute limit of madness. As pointed out in the list review above, Zuwalski follows a method that resembles Lynch’s. They both deal with turning points in life that a lot of people go through (In Eraserhead, a young father struggling in a strange city, in Possession, an ugly divorce) and then they turn it into a weird nightmare. The end of a marriage is an agonizing threshold that many people must cross in life, but Zulawski doesn’t exactly let his characters cross it – he suspends them there, he turns it into a terrible dream where time and logic don’t apply, and to torture them further he adds elements that even people trapped in the worst divorces don’t have to deal with (spies, octopus husband clones). N. K. Mikhailovsky observed that Dostoevsky possessed “a cruel talent” – an epithet that could justifiably be applied to Zulawski as well. He tortures the characters so thoroughly that their hysterical behavior almost makes sense.

    Furthermore, Zulawski not only seems to employ Dostoevskian methods, but he seems to use them in the service of the same artistic goals. Let me be very clear: I am not saying that he achieves the same degree of success, but only that he seems to be attempting to do the same thing (I will touch on how successful he was later). Consider: “…the entire artistic construction of a Dostoevskian novel is directed toward discovering and clarifying the hero’s discourse… The special sort of moral torture that Dostoevsky inflicts upon his heroes [is used] in order to force out of them that ultimate word of a self-consciousness pushed to its extreme limits,..” In other words, the characters are tortured and provoked, and then they speak. But when they speak it is no ordinary utterance. Instead, it is the “ultimate word of a self-consciousness pushed to its extreme limits.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like Zulawski?

    Everybody in Possession talks like some kind of philosopher or ideologist. This also reminds one of Dostoevsky. Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Stavrogin, Ivan and Dmitry Karamazov are each the bearer and embodiment of some big idea. For example, Raskolnikov’s idea is constructed mainly from Max Stirner,(the Ego and Its Own) and Napoleon III (History of Julius Ceaser). I don’t know the sources and prototypes for the ideas dealt with in Possession. To be honest, after two viewings I’m not even sure what those ideas are. But that these ideas are present and that the characters are the embodiment of these ideas is quite clear I think (rather than saying they embody an idea, it might be more accurate to say they are consumed by it, or even better, possessed by it). For example, Anna seems to be possessed by the idea of Faith and Chance (whatever that means).

    One more point of comparison that I will mention just for the sake of completeness is the doubling motif. Dostoevsky wrote one shorter novel that deals with this (the Double) and it occurs over and over again in all his major novels. “…almost every one of the leading heroes of his novels has several doubles who parody him in various ways: for Raskolnikov there are Svidrigailov, Luzhin, and Lebeziatnikov; for Stavrogin, Peter Verkhovensky, Shatov, and Kirillov; for Ivan Karamazov, Smerdyakov, the devil, Rakitin.”

    I will conclude with a very limited attempt to evaluate how successful Zulawski actually was in achieving his artistic goals (assuming for the moment that I am accurate in my description of what those goals were). I love this movie but I do not understand it. Although I left a critical comment to the infamous Pamela De Graff review, I do understand the frustrations of watching this flick. Dostoevsky can be difficult too, but I still get it. For example, I understand Raskolnikov’s idea, I can appreciate the skillful provocations that Raskolnikov is subjected to and how all of this “moral torture” is carefully orchestrated in order to reveal every important aspect of the idea, as well as to test it’s value. I don’t know what’s going on in Possession, however. One of Bakhtin’s observations makes me think of Zulawski: “To convince ourselves of the artistic depth and subtlety of these provocative artistic devices of Dostoevsky, it is enough to compare him with recent enthusiastic imitators of this ‘cruel talent’ – the German Expressionists Kornfeld, Werfel, and others. In most cases these writers cannot get beyond provocations of hysteria and various hysterical frenzies, because they are incapable of creating around the hero that extremely complex and subtle atmosphere that would force him to reveal and explain himself dialogically, to catch aspects of himself in others’ consciousnesses, to build loopholes for himself, prolonging and thereby laying bare his own final word as it interacts intensely with other consciousnesses.” It may very well be that, although working in a completely different medium (film instead of literature), Zulawski could possibly be counted among these lesser imitators of Dostoevsky’s “cruel talent.” Then again, maybe the subtleties and complexities are indeed present but I’m too dense to pick them up. The first impression is definitely one of “provocations of hysteria” that don’t really mean much or add up to anything, but future viewings may reveal more. Whether or not this movie is artistically successful in a more conventional sense, it is certainly successful in the weird sense. It’s truly one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen and I was quite pleased to see it on the list.

    1. I don’t have anything to add, but I wanted to thank you for the long and insightful commentary. I’m guessing you’re working on some kind of essay or thesis about Dostoevsky at the moment. Using one artist as a lens to examine another often produces new insights.

  4. Pretty insightful, considering that the following Zulawski films – LA FEMME PUBLIQUE (The Public Woman) & L’ AMOUR BRAQUE (Mad Love) are based on Dostoyevsky works — Demons (AKA The Possessed) and The Idiot, respectively.

    1. A little more research would have revealed beforehand that Kulawski had filmed two adaptations of Dostoevsky, thus the influence could be taken for granted, and there would have been no need to argue at such length in order to establish it. But it is awesome that this fact was pointed out by L. Rob Hubbard! My highest hope for was a few stray quotations from a DVD commentary or an interview that supported my theory a little, but this could almost be considered proof: Dostoevsky was indeed a strong influence on this particular filmmaker. I thought so!

  5. Of course, Tolstoy! Why didn’t I think of that? The adulteress is even named Anna. I probably overstated the Dostoevsky influence a little. There are a lot of influences brewing in the cauldron here.

    By the way, I watched Possession a third time to see if my little Dostoevsky theory would shed any light on the proceedings, and it didn’t really. I want to retract what I put forward above, that Zulawski is one of the lesser imitators of Dostoevsky’s “cruel talent”. The influence may be strong, but Zulawski is clearly his own man. Like Lynch he has a very unique vision that is truly original and impossible to copy.

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